Amaryllis and Hippeastrum are genera from the same family of plants, and are closely related to each other. We all know these for their beautiful huge flowers in the middle of winter.
Amaryllis produces single flower stems that have at least 4 large flowers that seem to define the major points of the compass. The large bright red, purple, white, pink and/or striped flowers offer a bold accent of color to a home during the bleakest times of the year.
The showy bloom overshadows what little fragrance some have. Even the least garden-enabled can buy a dormant bulb at a box store and realize a perfect bloom.
There are a number of aspects to this plant that contribute to confusion. There are continuing problems with the name as well as inconsistencies with the growing habits and accepted cultural guidelines. Amaryllis are really carefree container plants to grow once meeting the “must do” requirement. Now is the time to save those bulbs that just finished blooming, so they will bloom next year.
History of These Showy Plants
There is considerable concern over the scientific name for these plants. Amaryllis are native to both South Africa as well as South America. The genus name distinction between Amaryllis and Hippeastrum begins with the father of botanical nomenclature himself. Linnaeus first identified these flowers as Amaryllis. Then in the early 19th century another botanist, William Hebert, assigned the genus name of Hippeastrum.
There is concern whether Linnaeus was actually describing South African selections or South American. His son supported the general consensus that he did indeed describe South African selections. Considerable debate continued (and may remain unsettled today) until the late 1980s. Experts decided that those with South African roots would be known as Amaryllis and those genus from South America as Hippeastrum. Current concession is for tolerance in that all of these can be known as Amaryllis. Confused?
Debate about species and other nomenclature matters is often complex. Some issues are never completely decided except through modern genetic fingerprinting which is having an impact on some debate.
For another example, hostas still generate considerable debate about what is and what is not a species. One hosta previously accepted as a species was recently relegated to a cultivar (gardeners refer to a hybrid of species as a cultivar) in 2010. There was considerable historical documentation on this hosta, yet the nail in the coffin came but recently when Ben Zonneveld, a pollen expert, confirmed through an analysis, that this was a hybrid.
Even though concerns remain about the name, these plants all grow the same way and tend to bloom about the same time. For the rest of this article, I will call them all Amaryllis to minimize confusion.
Amaryllis: Cultural Information
Amaryllis are easy to grow plants. There are several mistakes many make that are easily avoided, then they will multiply and bloom every year if the gardener realizes one absolute fact about Amaryllis. The number one adamant rule of Amaryllis is that they absolutely HATE the act of lifting and moving.
Find a container in which you can plant your bulb and then leave it alone. In fact, you will not even want to change out the potting media. Simply add more media to the container as it needs replacement. Spread your new potting media right on top of the existing planting. The bulbs won’t mind and in fact, prefer that you don’t lift them EVER.
These are nearly all tropical bulbs. Amaryllis belladonna commonly called Naked Lady Lily or Surprise Lily or Resurrection Lily grows in most temperate Zone 6 and higher locations. It is one of the very few that will tolerate any cold. These bloom at the odd time most of the way towards the fall equinox.
Amaryllis enjoys a growth formula (higher nitrogen concentration) after flowering while new leaves are emerging for the new growth season. Then when all the leaves have come out, you can switch to a bloom (higher potassium and phosphorous concentrations) until fall. Stop fertilizing about a month before bringing them inside for the winter.
Water as needed during the growth cycle. They prefer plenty of watering in the summer. Many recommend reducing and even withholding water in the fall when bringing the container of bulbs inside.
Gardeners do this so that they can enjoy the flowering at the time of choice during the winter and many prefer to see the flower scape of Amaryllis without a base of foliage. As long as the bulb has been dormant for about 6 weeks, it will then be ready to bloom once watering resumes.
This cultural advice is all well and fine if you desire to choose when the bulb blooms. Another option is reducing water but not completely stopping. This means that the foliage will not completely go dormant. The bulb in this situation tends to choose when it wants to bloom – which normally is late winter through spring. This method can present less stress to the bulb because there is some moisture to keep it firm and not suffering, and more closely mimics natural environmental rain patterns.
Most recommend containers that are just slightly larger in diameter than the bulb. This is standard advice and seems to work if you choose to only flower your bulb for one season and then replace it the next season with a new bulb. Gardeners achieve better success with larger containers. Containers that are more than a couple of bulbs’ width across and deep will produce yearly dividends because the roots will have adequate room. Offsets will naturally fill in a larger container until optimum amounts are growing together well. Then excessive bulb-let production will drop off until a vacancy opens again.
Light can be a bit of a problem. Bloom is best for bulbs that are growing in as much light as they can tolerate. Amaryllises are a bit like orchids. Placing these in a shady location may not provide enough energy for best bloom. Foliage may not look the best when placed in greater light.
Remember that the flower is the goal. Place your container in a situation where the leaves just begin to suffer. The leaf color will become dull and have a gray cast to them when grown in the best light. They will not appear as forest green.
The Hippeastrum striatum in this article image collection was grown in full sun. Leaves may burn when first being acclimated out doors for the summer. New un-burned leaves will quickly replace burned leaves; the new leaves will be tolerant to higher amounts of light.
It is important to note that the flower scape will follow the light. You will want to rotate your container should you choose to grow in a window. Rotating frequently will result in flowers that are standing up on straight stems. Those cultivars that produce extra large blooms should have additional support from a sturdy stake.
Propagation of Amaryllis
There has been considerable work creating new cultivars. These plants easily reproduce through seed. Hybridization has produced hundreds of new and interesting colors and flower sizes. The average gardener can hybridize this flower should you choose to experiment.
Typically, gardeners produce new plants clonally. This means that gardeners can produce new plants that are genetically identical to each other. Cloned plants allow registered names to follow the flower since they are all the same. When I see Amaryllis ‘Flamenco Queen’, I know that I will have a flower that is very full, with large white petals streaked with an apple red.
Bulbs make large quantities of bulb-lets as a natural method of propagation. Each of these miniature versions of the adult can grow to a full size plant in a few years. This is why those cultivars that are grown in tropical areas can soon become invasive. Invasive non-native plants crowd indigenous plants and gardeners should avoid them at all cost.
Amaryllis can also be propagated by bulb division just as some do with rare daffodil cultivars. This involves a vertical partitioning of the bulb so each part has some root at the bottom and part of the growing tip at the top. This works well as long as you have the skill. The time required to re-grow a section to blooming size is about the same as rearing a bulb-let.
Bulb division was a preferred technique until the development of modern in-vitro (tissue culturing) propagation. Tissue culture can produce thousands of plants for pennies each. It is a fast way to mass produce rare new plants at reasonable prices. While the time required is the same as growing a bulb-let, the incredible number of new TC clones makes this the preferred professional propagation method.
One prestigious garden society recommends removing bulb-lets as they are found especially those that remain attached to the adult. Amaryllis planted in larger containers will soon produce bulb-lets that will, in a few seasons, fill the container.
The problem with the established advice is that one must break the “do not disturb your Amaryllis ever” rule. This is the one rule for growing Amaryllis that gardeners must not violate if you want these to bloom year after year. Rampant generation of new bulb-lets will slow once the container becomes full.
Once you have a nice container all you need to do is water and fertilize regularly. Amaryllis will take care of everything else as long as you leave them alone. Then all you have to do is decide if you want to control when the bulb blooms or whether you will let it choose its own time.
You will find that your Amaryllis will bloom at the close of winter and the advent of spring if left to its own devices. These are one of the last house plants to flower before spring bulbs in the yard begin. They are most welcome at this time of the year building excitement for a new outdoor growing season.
Amaryllis or Hippeastrum?
No matter whether you choose the time for your bulb to bloom or if you allow it to bloom in its own, you will have considerable time to consider the name for your flower. Will you call them Amaryllis or will you call them Hippeastrum? Marketing may have spoiled us.
We may never refer to our bulbs as Hippeastrum. That’s ok. We all know what we’re talking about which is why the nomenclature committee chose to allow Amaryllis to be the accepted name for all no matter the native continent. Except for species, this may be a moot point anyway. Hybridization is blurring the lines between old world and new world issues. Let’s just leave this to the scholars to worry about while we enjoy these easy-to-grow flowers.