By Sean Conway

By following a few simple cultivation steps, virtually anybody can coax beautiful amaryllis bulbs to bloom indoors in the winter

By following a few simple cultivation steps, virtually anybody can coax beautiful amaryllis bulbs to bloom indoors in the winter

'Tis the season for Hippeastrum! For those who don't speak horticultural Latin, let me rephrase: 'Tis the season for Amaryllis.

The bulbs we commonly refer to as Amaryllis are actually a separate genus of the Amaryllis family called Hippeastrum and are comprised of 70 to 75 different species and more than 600 cultivars. Once only available through specialty catalogs and garden centers, amaryllis bulbs are now available at grocery stores, mass retailers and even at drug store chains. Why the surge in popularity? The answer lies in the life cycle of the plant, and the ease with which anybody can grow this beautiful bulb.

Amaryllis bulbs go through a growth cycle similar to the daffodil bulb. In the spring they send up green strap-like leaves, which feed the plant during its active growing period throughout the summer. During fall months, when days shorten, the bulb goes into dormancy and rests. In the wild, the ability to go into a dormant state helps the plant survive during periods of little or no rain.

Growers of amaryllis bulbs are able to package and ship bulbs while they are dormant with little to no harm to the plant. Once planted and given water and light, the bulbs grow and bloom.

Bulbs planted in mid to late fall will bloom in four to six weeks when grow in a sunny window. Begin by potting up your bulb in a clay or ceramic pot. Lightweight plastic pots may not be heavy enough to prevent your plant from tipping over when in bloom. Choose a pot that allows at least 1 inch of space between the edge of the bulb and the edge of the pot.

Be sure your pot has a drainage hole at the bottom. Like most bulbs, amaryllis bulbs prefer well-drained soils or they will rot. I use a well-balanced commercial potting mix as a base and then add a generous handful of sand to the mix to ensure good drainage.

Commercially grown Amaryllis bulbs come in a variety of sizes and it is best to choose the largest size bulbs you can find. The larger the bulb, the more flower spikes you will have on your plant. If you order your bulbs online, choose the "jumbo" size.

Fill the bottom third of the pot with soil and gently place the bulb's roots on top of the soil. Cover the bulb up to its rim, leaving the neck exposed. Water well with slightly warm water and place the pot in a sunny window.

Water sparingly until the bulb begins to grow. This may take several weeks. During this period it is important not to over water or you run the risk of rotting the bulb before it has put out roots.

Once your bulb begins to show signs of life, it will begin to grow rapidly. Most bulbs push up flower stalks first, followed by leaves. Once your bulb is in flower, move it out of the direct sunlight and it will last longer.

When the blooms have faded, cut the stalk at the base of the bulb and place the pot back in the window, keeping it evenly moist. Green strap-like leaves will grow from the center of the bulb and most bulbs will produce a second and sometimes third flower stalk.

After the bulb is done blooming feed it every two to three weeks with a well-balanced, water-soluble fertilizer. When spring arrives, place your plant outside in a shaded area after the danger of frost has passed. Most plants benefit greatly from a summer vacation outdoors, and amaryllis bulbs are no exception.

Water and fertilize regularly until mid-September, then hold off the water until the leaves begin to turn slightly yellow. Once the leaves have begun to die back, place the bulb in a cool, dark location for another four to six weeks, and then repot in fresh potting soil and place it back in a sunny window for a repeat show just in time for the holidays.

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