An Easier Way to Get Amaryllis to Re-bloom
Q. Last Christmas a friend gave us an amaryllis that bloomed beautifully. I kept it alive after the holidays and then moved it outside, where it grew lots of new leaves all summer and fall. But the leaves never turned yellow, and I finally brought it back inside just before our first freeze. Should I cut off the leaves, or are they still nourishing the bulb? How do I care for it so that it will bloom again?
--- Rebecca in Silver Spring, Maryland
A. I have to confess that when an old amaryllis of mine re-blooms, it's a total accident. But my sister-in-law Maureen (my brother's wife) down in Virginia Beach "shared" a photo of her astounding re-blooming success on Facebook earlier this year, so I decided to interview her about her technique.
(I say she "quote" shared a photo because she was obviously bragging. And to really rub my nose in it, she pointed out that the bulbs in question had been a gift from me some ten years ago! Where I grew up, that's called 'putting the boot in'. [Actually in my specific neighborhood it was "and here's a little something to take home with you", but the sentiment was the same.])
Hey—I would brag too; the plant has matured sensationally under her care.
More importantly, she has somewhat accidentally fallen into a rhythm where she doesn't try to force her amaryllis to rebloom AT Christmas; she lets them follow a more normal pattern that allows the bulbs to take advantage of a full summer's sun to really recharge. (She also suspects that the bulbs like being rootbound; she says that she's only repotted them once in the past ten years—and that was because the growing bulbs had split the pot open!)
And yes, that's "bulbs" plural. Apparently I gave her a set of three bulbs designed to be nestled together in a big round pot way back when. Which is a relief—I would have been insanely jealous if she had gotten a display like this from a single, ten-year-old bulb. (She told me that she was tempted to try and separate them once, but the roots had become so tangled together she was afraid she'd damage them if she tried.)
Anyway: The first year, she explains, she set the new bulbs in their soil-filled pot (being careful to keep half of each bulb well above the soil line), watered them, put them in decent light and they bloomed nicely. (I've never heard of new, first-time bulbs not putting on a good show.) Then she clipped off the tops of the stalks after the flowers had faded, which is important. Seedheads typically form at the top of the stalk after the flowers are gone, and if you don't clip them off, they'll drain energy from the bulbs.
Now, at this point, new leaves will emerge from each bulb if they haven't already. Give them the best light you can. I suspect the fact that this happens in January with holiday amaryllis is one big limiting factor for re-bloom, because these tropical bulbs are like Spring bulbs in one important regard: After the flowers fade, the leaves must collect lots of solar energy to fuel the growth of the next round of flowers. Sunshine is abundant when Spring bulbs are recharging outdoors in April and May—but the months after Christmas, not so much.
And unlike Spring bulbs, which love cold weather, amaryllis are tropical, so the plants can't go outside until there's no risk of frost. Which my sister-in-law explains she waited to do that first year; she put the bulbs out after the weather warmed up and fed them—you should always give your amaryllis a gentle feeding as soon as they go outside.
But then she says she essentially forgot about them until it started getting chilly in late fall. Then she brought them back inside and let them rest in a cool dark place with no water for a couple of months. (In their pot, which is fine; there's no need to take the bulbs out of their pots during dormancy—and there may be advantages to NOT removing them.)
Oh—and just like our listener (remember our listener? The one with the question?), Maureen told me that her leaves are often still green in November. It doesn't matter; you have to bring the plants back inside before it gets too cold outside. (And photosynthesis is essentially over by mid-October.) So stop watering, let the leaves turn brown naturally, and begin the six week to three month rest period.
Then be patient, because now is when you can set up your perfect timing schedule. Maureen says she typically lets her bulbs continue to rest over the holidays, and then brings them back into bright light and starts watering again right around Valentine's Day. (The photo was taken in March of this year, when they had hit full bloom.)
BUT, she cautions, she lives in a pretty moderate climate (next stop along the coast is pretty much the Carolinas) and so she can typically put the plants outside shortly after they finish blooming. People in chillier areas than far Southern Virginia should let their bulbs rest a little longer, aiming for keeping them indoors for the shortest possible time after flowering is over. (You want an easy guideline to remember? Plan on taking them outside when it's safe to plant tomatoes in your region.)
Take them outside when all risk of frost is gone, gently feed them, let the new leaves soak up rays for the entire summer, and when summer is totally gone, bring the bulbs inside to a cool dark spot and let them have a nice long dormant period. With this 'relaxed timing', the bulbs don't have to go through the long period of poor light they have to endure when you try to rush them into re-blooming at Christmas.
In fact, I think it's safe to say that the closer to April you wait to 'wake them up', the better the future re-blooms will be!