From the moment Europeans got a look at the huge New World lily, breeders went to work. The result is our fabulous red amaryllis so popular for living decorations during the holidays. Many species of Hippeastrum from Brazil to Argentina traveled easily as dormant bulbs aboard ships. This brought a diversity of species into horticultural centers early on. Modern cellular propagation via tissue culture today has reduced prices considerably, allowing ever more exotic forms to broaden the flower’s appeal. That’s how they went from rich home decor to an affordable beauty or gifts of truly green plants.
What newbies to the desert may not know is that the big red holiday amaryllis just love our sandy soil in a nice bright shade or a protected southern exposure. Old-time residents began the trend decades ago so they’re already well-established here. They will grow just like a common Agapanthus, foliage wise, and it will bloom bigger each year as the mass of bulbs gradually increases, taking divisions from old patches of tightly-packed bulbs that have proved themselves on little more than moisture seepage from the structure.
What makes the difference here is always moisture or the lack of it. With amaryllis after bloom, keep the bulbs hydrated and expanding all the time. Choose a place in your garden that gets moisture, maybe one problematic for other kinds of plants. Bulbs of all kinds are an evolutionary strategy to survive an extended dry season by dying back until the rains come.
To plant your amaryllis, remember that it won’t look very good after blooming and producing leaves over the holidays. This effort nearly depletes the poor bulb, so planting out immediately may be too much stress. Often the weakest individuals just dry out or fail to thrive. It’s gentler to create an interim rehab period until spring where it can recover from this enormous effort. This ensures adequate root depth before the assault of summer.
For the full spa treatment that stimulates root and leaf health, start with a large pot of very sandy soil mix that drains quickly. Dune sand blended with potting soil works great. Use this to rehydrate the roots over a month or two in bright shade and out of the wind. Keep moist, but not wet. Add diluted fertilizer to your water to help replenish the bulb for next year. Look for activity and a general perk up of the leaves that shows its rehydrating properly. This tells you it’ll be ready for transplant soon into the rigors of our desert gardens.
If you’re lucky enough to have a generous neighbor or friend with a patch of old amaryllis, they’re probably the most common red and white form. That’s because it came early to the desert and had a long time to prove its adaptability. It is interesting to note that these lilies were in Roberto Burle Marx’s native plant palette for his Brazilian modern landscapes.
By the dry heat of summer, you can expect all the green foliage to die back for dormancy. Once brown, remove it all and maintain regular irrigation to keep bulbs from dehydrating. Proper hydration can also help them tolerate more direct sun.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised six months later when your amaryllis springs forth in great red trumpets flowers. It is an unexpected miracle in the desert and provides opportunities for condo courtyards and beds around shaded patios.
January is the month when the gift plants and the living decor starts to pucker, the heat dries them out as do our desert winds, and the foliage is far too long and floppy. Just imagine how much effort was required to propagate, grow and prepare for market a plant unceremoniously dumped every new year. Seems like such a waste.
Why not add them to your garden or donate to a friend’s. Make these flowers your usual holiday decor in all their varied splendor, then plant them out. Soon there will be enough of them to cut and bring indoors every year for own perfect touch of passionate red, just where you want it.