by Margie B. Klein
Could a plant hold the keys to Heaven, or at least to the Garden of Eden? This is one special plant. Just pronouncing its name is a feat. If you’re my age, you can remember a tiny Ron Howard trying to pronounce the girl’s name that is A-ma-ryllis in The Music Man movie. How could such a boisterous bloom emanate from a simple bulb that looks like a baseball? I’m fascinated by these flowers, and by the fact that I can grow them!
After Christmas, a holiday I adore, is over, I want to keep the festive spirit going, so I buy more houseplants to fill the vacant space left by the evergreen tree. I especially revel in finding plants with red in the leaves. And I buy amaryllis. More amaryllis. Never mind that there are forty of them in my garden – I want more. There is such a joy in planting them – it’s like planting Christmas, and I only have a short wait until they bloom in the spring and I can celebrate again.
I grew up in Wisconsin, where a Christmas amaryllis in a bulb vase was an oddity, a novelty gift that my Dad knew I’d love. The ones that I was gifted when I was a teenager had sparks of life, but never bloomed. Bulbs aren’t stupid. They knew I was trying to force growth in a centrally heated house while it was 20 degrees below outside. They weren’t going for the ruse. But how could I guess that decades later I would grow these beauties as a staple in my garden in the desert southwest?
Of course it’s a miracle that anything can grow in a traditional garden in the southwest desert. I could tell you the years of struggle to get my garden to produce a few adaptable flowers, but that’s another story. When someone suggested I try amaryllis bulbs, I balked. I’d been planting dollar bills for years and was getting stingy with my horticultural gambles. With a little research, I found that they liked warmth, and figured they were worth a try. Surprise – they grew.
What was really strange was that they didn’t bloom any time near Christmas, but rather closer to Easter, in April and May. So they became a substitute for Easter lilies, which never survived in the heat. Then the obsession began. There were some lessons to be learned along the way - such as planting the bulbs too deep will lead to rot, and too shallow may leave the tops vulnerable to predation. Yes, pillbugs are predators in my book.
As I sought out sources for these beauties, I found that amaryllis come in a range of colors these days - far beyond the traditional red. I guess I’ve become somewhat of an amaryllis snob, because now the traditional Christmas red and white striped ones have become too common for me. I’m in love with the refined colors of pink, magenta, and almost-purple. Varieties like Gervase, Hercules, Lagoon, and Purple Rain are gorgeous. The deep red and purplish ones, like Red Pearl and Honeymoon, are enchanting, but if water gets on the bloom, it leaves terrible spots that destroy their beauty. I haven’t yet decided on the yellowish ones, which are really more white than anything.
As for types, I’ve developed favorites, too, but that’s based on which ones will actually grow here. The South African and Dutch varieties seem to be the most vigorous and do the best. Doubles of course, give twice the bloom for the buck. Those miniature ones are cute, but are dwarfed by larger plants in the garden. And the odd cybister types are just a little too difficult to grow here. Claims of fragrance don’t fool me, for I know that the desert heat evaporates any aroma chemicals. These extravagant blooms are pricey, and $20 is an average price. The new releases of improved hybrids always fetch more, early in the fall bulb planting season. After the Christmas holiday, they are often marked down, and some deals can be scored on the more popular varieties. But alas, the most unique ones will likely be sold out.
Another idea is to befriend an amaryllis aficionado, who might be willing to make a gift of multiplying bulbs. Just remember that secondary bulbs will take several years to attain good flower-producing size. I’m always on the lookout for something new, and the hybridizers are always sure to satisfy. Each year, albeit in May and not December, this girl from the frozen north who was banished to the desert lauds her blossoming miracle: a garden full of gorgeous amaryllis.
A freelance writer for 30 years, Margie is retired from a career in natural resources. Her accomplishments include being a Fellow with the International League of Conservation Writers, a writing award from The Wildlife Society, and co-authoring a character education curriculum with the Advice from Nature folks.