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Garden Experiences: Amaryllis

Copyright © 1998-2000, 2003-2004, 2008, 2011, 2017-2019 by David E. Ross

Two different bulbs are called "amaryllis". Related, both are from the tropics and sub-tropics; and both have stalks of large, trumpet-shaped flowers. However, they are different and have differing cultural requirements.

Amaryllis belladonna Genus Hippeastrum
common names: "naked lady", "belladonna lily" common names: "amaryllis", "oxblood lily" (red varieties)
native of South Africa native of Central and South America
may be hardy to Sunset zone 4: 0°F if the onset of freezing weather is gradual and temperatures below 20°F are of short duration hardy to Sunset zone 13: few nights below 32°F, rarely (if ever) below 19°F
although more hardy than Hippeastrum, tends to go dormant, even in mild-winter climates although more tender than A. belladonna, can be evergreen, even with slight frost
drought tolerant grows well with ample water if soil drains well
fragrant pink flowers, generally appearing when leaves are dormant; blooms once a year flowers are white, red, or variegated (combining red, white, pink, and orange); most varieties without significant scent; blooms appear while bulb is in full leaf, sometimes twice or even three times a year
flower stalks solid flower stalks hollow tubes
may refuse to bloom for several years if roots are disturbed at the wrong time may be transplanted almost any time of the year
photo of Hippeastrum flower

In my garden, I have four potted Hippeastrum bulbs. Three of them have flowers as seen in the photograph to the right. These might be the variety 'Josephine Henry'. My home is the fourth house where I have planted these bulbs, moving them from one house to the next, starting as a teenager living with my parents more than 60 years ago.

photo of oxblood lily The fourth potted Hippeastrum is a uniform red as seen in the photo to the left. This is sometimes called an "oxblood lily". I received this as a gift.

As potted plants, Hippeastrum does well when pot-bound. Confining the roots seems to make them bloom even more vigorously. Some people will keep a bulb in the same pot until the bulb grows enough to crack the pot apart. I consider that a waste; I repot when side bulbs reach the size where they can be potted on their own. After the bulb blooms, continue to care for a potted Hippeastrum, watering and feeding it until it chooses to go dormant (which might not happen). As long as it gets good light, it may bloom several times a year without needing any rest.

Hippeastrum can be divided almost any time of the year (except when the soil is soggy), but it is best done right at the end of a bloom period. In the ground, divide the bulbs only when they become so overgrown that some have been forced entirely above the soil by other bulbs below. Dig them, and then replant immediately. Always place a handful of bone meal in the planting hole below the bulb and stir into the soil; cover the bone meal with a little unfertilized soil so that the roots do not immediately come in contact with the fertilizer. Of course, in a pot with limited room, the roots will be in direct contact with any fertilizer. However, my potting mix — which has perfect drainage, a constant supply of air within the mix, and a buffering action from the peat moss — mitigates any problems from this contact. Whether in the ground or in a pot, the neck of the bulb should be exposed above the soil. If frost is likely, the rest of the bulb should be in the soil; in frost-free areas, the top third of the bulb may be exposed.

Snails are a serious problem for Hippeastrum. They may chew through the flower stalk, causing it to topple. Often, they will remove all leaves from the bulb. For this reason, I stopped planting Hippeastrum in the ground and instead have all of them in pots. I control snails in my garden with carnivorous decollate snails (Rumina decollata), which are not available or even legal in many areas. Since decollate snails cannot climb — even the short distance up the sides of a flowerpot — I use poisonous snail bait in my pots if I see the start of snail damage. Lately (2017), I have not seen any significant snail damage in my garden, which means I might resume planting some Hippeastrum in the ground when I next divide the potted bulbs. (For information about controlling snails, refer to the UC Pest Management Guidelines.)

In my mild-winter climate, I have little experience with Hippeastrum as a house plant. I might bring a potted bulb indoors while it is in bloom, merely to show it off.

Last updated 18 May 2019

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