Hippeastrum Royal Red
Sarah Raven, never one to shy away from strong colours, expounds on the beautiful amaryllis/hippeastrum…
The Telegraph 16th November 2007
Dazzlingly over-the-top, amaryllis are the perfect cut flower for Christmas. Sarah Raven shows how to grow and arrange them
Amaryllis have replaced poinsettias as Britain’s favourite Christmas plant and that’s a great thing.
These huge South African bulbs make brilliant winter house plants and are the longest-lasting winter cut flower you can buy. As cut stems, treated right, they’ll last nearly three weeks. And, if you take care of your bulbs, they will bloom again and again, putting on an extra inch in girth and producing an extra flower spike every year you keep them.
They’re expensive. But, cut or growing, they are well worth it. Old squares, such as my husband, think they are vulgar and over-the-top. But what, I wonder, is Christmas for? All he wants are delicate, pure white lilies. But, of course, lilies aren’t really in season. Do the amaryllis thing: show the bores what you are made of.
To get the most out of cut amaryllis, choose carefully from the word go. Buy stems in tight bud and don’t just shove them into the car any-old-how. Get them packed in a box or lay them out on a cushion of tissue paper on the back seat.
They are less vulnerable in bud, but even then the petals bruise easily. That also applies when you get them home. Don’t lay the flowers out flat on a table – the stems can lie there but the flowers are best left hanging over the edge. Before you arrange them, insert a cane into their hollow stem.
This sounds like a palaver but it will double their vase life. Without internal support, the weight of the huge flower tends to break the stem as it ages. They will crash in half and the flowers will bruise. Stuffed with a cane, the stem can’t bend.
When you push in the cane, it should jam just below the flower. With most stems, it will be held inside. Some have a wider diameter and the cane plops out as you lift the stem to put it into the vase. Just add a plug of cotton wool to hold the cane in place.
The cut stem ends also tend to split and curl like pigs’ tails. This looks ugly and the stem will gradually collapse, so twist a thick rubber band around the very bottom to prevent cracks forming.
To get the best amaryllis for your Christmas decorations, order early from your florist. Try to get a white (‘Mount Blanc’ or ‘Ludwig Dazzler’) or one of the latest glamorous varieties such as ‘Royal Velvet’ or ‘Tinto Night’ in deep velvet red, several steps up from the more brazen pillarbox tones of ‘Liberty’.
Do not arrange cut amaryllis on their own. Their tall straight stems can all too easily look formal and rigid. Mix them with silver birch branches or pussy willow to create a fuller, more generous arrangement.
Usually, you’d put your foliage branches in the vase first, but not with amaryllis. Their stems are soft and bruise easily as you poke woody branches in. I always arrange my amaryllis first and then add the branches later for extra support. One last thing – deep red amaryllis can look a bit sombre on their own, so add dazzle to your vase with plenty of brightly-coloured or mirrored decorations and a string or two of white fairy lights.
Amaryllis bulbs also make a good Christmas present, but not boxed up. Go one or two steps further and plant the bulbs yourself into a beautiful pot. You can buy something chipped from a junk shop and plant up to five bulbs in that. If you plant them in the next couple of weeks, they won’t be in flower by Christmas, but should be by Easter. That’s when they flower naturally, in the early spring.
Amaryllis like a tight fit in their pot with about 2.5cm (1in) between the bulb and the sides. If you’re planting just one bulb, use a 15-20cm (6-8in) diameter container that’s nearly twice that in depth. For three or five, the pot should be huge. Before planting, hydrate the desiccated roots by soaking them in tepid tap water overnight, resting the base of the bulb on a jam jar with all the roots (but not the bulb base) in the water. Amaryllis are huge bulbs and have a tendency to rot, so drainage is vital. Put a good handful of crocks in your pot to help with drainage and then mix together equal parts of peat-free multipurpose compost and horticultural grit or perlite. The shoulder of the bulb should sit one-third above the surface of the compost when you plant. Water from the top with tepid tap water. Once it has drained into the saucer, tip it away.
These are hot-climate tender plants and they love warmth – a light and well-ventilated place, free from draughts, about 20C is ideal. A shelf above a radiator is perfect. Keep the compost moist until a shoot appears and then water more. If you want to keep the bulb to grow again, this is also the time to start a weak monthly balanced liquid feed.
To make them look lovely straight away, poke in lots of silver birch, alder, oak or hazel branches between the bulbs. The twigs give the amaryllis support as they grow and the burgeoning nest of twigs and emerging shoots make a fantastic table centre even without the flowers.
As soon as the flowers start to open, move the plant to a cooler place to prolong their life. As light a position as possible, 10-15C is fine. Each flower should last about three weeks before they brown, but a great big bulb should provide at least one or two more flowering stems.
Even then, with the show over for this year, all is not lost. To ensure your amaryllis bulbs flower next year, you need to encourage the foliage to photosynthesise as long as possible. These plants are not hardy so don’t plant them out in the garden.
Cut the old flower spikes down but leave the foliage. Keep them somewhere light and warm and continue to feed and water. They also need a dry, dormant season, so once the leaves begin to die back in late summer, stop watering and allow the foliage to shrivel. Keep the bulb (still in its pot) completely dry in the garden shed or under a greenhouse bench until early winter.
When the temperature in your greenhouse falls to below 10C, bring them into the warmth and begin gentle watering again and your bulb will re-shoot. Don’t re-pot it for the first couple of years; it hates root disturbance.
For further reading on whether an amaryllis is an amaryllis or a hippeastrum, and vice-versa, start here..