By Marcy Plattner
My first experience with Amaryllis was in my early childhood. I remember it as a disappointment. My mother would buy a box with a bulb, soil and a green plastic pot for $2.98 at the grocery store. I remember having fun planting the bulb and setting it out on a windowsill in the winter, but I do not remember it ever blooming.
That was my introduction. My real infatuation with Amaryllis began about 30 years ago with Nellie Smith, the matriarch of Smith Gardens on Marine Drive. Nellie was an “Amaryllis Queen” with a true passion for these amazing bulbs. Nellie would successfully hold over 100 Amaryllis bulbs every year. Every season they would rebloom for her.
Over the years, her bulbs grew so big that they could barley fit in a 6-inch pot. When I met Nellie, even though she was re tired from her day-to-day nursery duties, she was still a force of energy. She lived in a little house next to an old wooden row of greenhouses. It was built in the old style with square-framed panes of glass accented with whitewashed, fragrant mossy wood.
Smith Gardens Nursery today is still located on Marine Drive in Bellingham. Over the years it has bloomed into a network of wholesale nurseries with locations up and down the West Coast. Even though Nellie passed away in 2003, Smith Gardens is now managed by 4th and 5th generation of Smiths. Nellie would be proud.
I will always treasure the experience of visiting “Nellie’s Greenhouse” when all her beloved bulbs were in glorious winter bloom. Looking back, I regret that I never asked how she did it. Was it the way she stored her bulbs? Was it her fertilizer? Was it her timing? If I could only wind back the clock!
There was an unfortunate tragedy during a particularly bitter winter storm in 1985.
The snow load on her old greenhouse became so heavy that the roof broke through. Nellie lost her entire Amaryllis collection to the cold. Like the true gardener she was, she was not defeated. She continued to collect, but it never was quite as grand of a show.
Nellie’s collection showed me what was possible and helped me set my sights on the goal of growing one great Amaryllis each season. It wasn’t long before I found myself wanting to grow more than just one Amaryllis and more than just the color red…
In the early years when I opened the Garden Spot, I searched for top quality Amaryllis. With a stroke of luck, I found a grower from Holland who would ship huge, softball-sized Dutch Amaryllis Bulbs. They were expensive, so I only dared to bring a few in to try. As they began to sell, I began to hear stories from my customers. They would let me know how many blooms they got from one bulb.
“Marcy, I have three blooms and there is one more coming!” was one of the many comments I’d get from my fellow Amaryllis growers.
Robin Plume thrilled me when she sent me a photo of her collection of bulbs with multi-flowers.
Soon new colors became available, like the first Lime blooming varieties! Then double blooms started appearing. I was even finding miniature varieties. So cute! After a couple of more years, even more cool Amaryllis came out on the market, such as the variety ‘La Paz’ which looks like an Orchid.
Even Martha Stewart started featuring Amaryllis varieties in her magazine. Wedding magazines and lifestyle magazines soon were showing photo spreads of the latest colors. Amaryllis introductions are announced, along with new photos, each year in Holland. It is like Fashion Week in New York City. I want them all!
Over the years whenever I find other Amaryllis aficionados that got their bulbs to dependably rebloom each year, I’ve learned to ask lots of questions. With the answers I’ve come to understand the basics of forcing these bulb beauties.
Here are my tips for success:
1.Select a firm, top quality Amaryllis bulb from your local, independent nursery (wink wink).
2. Plant your bulb in a pot where the bulb is only 2 inches away from the inside edge of the pot, and it’s only sitting 3/4 deep in the pot from the top of the soil line. Amaryllis like to feel snug in its container.
3. Do not overwater. Just keep it moist. If you are using a container with no drainage holes, just keep the watering slightly above the hairy roots. Most Amaryllis failure comes with over-watering because of root rot.
4. After your Amaryllis blooms, the long, green and sappy leaves will remain. Cut back the bloom stem and leave the leaves. Continue to water and fertilize like a regular houseplant.
5.After frost in May, transplant your leafy bulb out into a sunny spot in your garden where you will water and fertilize it all summer.
6. Stop watering your Amaryllis in September and let it dry down like an onion. Then dig it up, cut off the dried foliage and let your bulb cure in a cool dry place until November.
7.Then plant it in a pot, and soon it will begin to sprout a new bloom. If your bulb does not rebloom and you get just leaves, don’t give up! It just means that your bulb did not build up enough energy. Keep your leaves healthy and repeat the over-summering process. It should rebloom for you the following year.
Now I want you to become part of our Amaryllis Admiration Society. I want to hear your stories. I want to see your pictures. I want to know your secrets of success.