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Garden Edition: December 2002
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum hybrids)—Today’s Superbulb

by Linda Coyner

 
Since Eduard Poeppig plucked the first amaryllis from the ground in 1828 in Chile, a lot has happened. That first amaryllis was probably ghostly pale compared to the red, white, and pink trumpets that have become commonplace houseplants, especially around the holidays. Even so, the plantsman was so thrilled that it is said he was "often compelled to relieve his full heart by uttering loud shouts of joy, to which his faithful dog and sole companion and witness of his delight responded with howls of equal delight."

Fast forward to 2002. You can imagine his elation if he saw today’s amaryllis after more than 200 years of hybridizing: botanists tinkering with the shape and size of blooms and petals, height, and fragrance.

The result? Amaryllis colors have exploded, now covering the color spectrum — velvety reds, oranges, salmons, mahogany, magenta, deep rose, Victorian pinks, white, creamy yellow, lemon-lime. There are so many colors that they’ve run out of names for them. A pure yellow seems to be the last hurdle in the color barrier. Colors are also combined, creating a bi-color flower such as ‘Wedding Dance", which is white with a green throat. Patterns have been created, using flecks, streaks, stripes, spots, and venation.

Bloom shape, size, angle, number and longevity have also been tweaked. Flower faces graduated from the simple trumpet to rounded, triangular, rectangular, either open and flat or closed. Petals can reflex back for that wind-swept look or project forward, creating a hood. The shape of the petal can be broad, rounded, or narrow and pointed, spidery, or undulating or with a frilly-edge that resembles a lily. Six petals used to be the norm. Double flowers with 12 petals have become ordinary and triples — 18 petals — are increasingly available. Hybrids have upped the ante from two blooms per stalk to four to six blooms.

Overall size hasn’t been overlooked. There are a handful of miniatures — single and double — available that boast clusters of small flowers on 12-inch stems. A good example is ‘Scarlet Baby’. Another variation is the dwarf varieties, which have shorter scapes (flower stems) but full, or nearly full, sized flowers.

Most amaryllis are not fragrant but hybridizers are rolling out a few with some scent. Those reported to be fragrant include Appleblossom (white and pink), Blossom Peacock (red with white bands), Minera (red petals and white stripes), and Jewel (white with creped petals, daffodil-like). Jewel’s fragrance is described as the aroma of citrus.

Another possible characteristic is year-round flowering, according to Charles Hardman. In an article entitled "Trends in Modern Hippeastrum Hybridizing" in Herbertia (the publication of the International Bulb Society), he recounted the story of an hybridizer who discarded an everblooming cultivar because he thought the feature undesirable.

Hardman also points out that there is an increasing desire to grow the species (native South America plans) and to rescue older cultivars from oblivion and to grow and propagate them for future generations. Work with species is difficult as the plants are seriously depleted in South America.

Nurseries like Old House Gardens (www.oldhousegardens.com) are dedicated to saving heirloom bulbs. For instance, Hippeastrum x Johnsonii is one of the oldest hybrids and one of the hardiest for garden culture. Large clumps of various hardy hybrids can be seen throughout the southeast. These plants are usually only available as pass-along plants from neighbors and friends but a few nurseries are starting to sell them.

Another authority on the transformation of the amaryllis is Veronica Read. As curator of the British National Amaryllis Collection, she oversees some 700 plants including more than 140 different cultivars and 34 species. Her web site (www.veronicareadhippeastrum.com) provides a wealth of information about breeders, cultivars, shows, and other fascinating background on amaryllis. In fact, her passion was caught on film recently. A documentary filmmaker recorded her describing amaryllis at her London flat surrounded by, you guessed it, amaryllis.

You might ask, why lavish all this attention on a flower bulb? The plant delivers a splash of color during the bleakest of seasons and does it effortlessly. Little or no skill is required to coax the bulb to produce huge, colorful flowers during winter or early spring. A bloom can last a week or longer and even makes a great cut flower in a vase. And unlike other forced bulbs, forced amaryllis can be brought back to bloom with little effort for years and years. Who could ask for more?

This miracle happens in a few weeks, which makes it all the more exhilarating. The process has been documented beautifully by award-winning photographer Starr Ockenga in her recent book Amaryllis (Clarkson Potter, 2002, $20).

A bit of name confusion haunts amaryllis. The plant commonly known as amaryllis is actually Hippeastrum hybrids that have evolved from the handful of species found in South America. It is frequently confused with the true amaryllis, Belladonna Lily (Amaryllis belladonna), a summer bulb that grows in masses in southern California. Despite the fact that the scientific record was set straight in 1837, Hippeastrum hybrids continue to be referred to as amaryllis.

Amaryllis bulbs come from Holland, Israel, South Africa, South America, Japan, and Australia. In some places, like Holland, they’re grown in greenhouses, but in more temperate climes like Africa and Australia, they’re grown out in the field. Regardless of their origin, they have to endure the trauma of early harvest, root deprivation, months of dry, cold storage, special early-bloom treatment, and still flourish for the consumer.

You can buy amaryllis as bare bulbs or prepotted and gift-boxed. This time of year, gift boxes are stacked by the thousands in Home Depot and Wal-Mart. On-line vendors are noted below. When shopping look for fresh bulbs that are referred to by a name rather than just a color. They’re likely to be better quality. Bulbs that have started to grow aren’t fresh. The bigger the bulb the better. Bigger bulbs produce more flowers. Detailed information about growing and reblooming amaryllis is readily available on-line. See Resources, below.

Sources for buying bulbs:
http://www.oldhousegardens.com (rare, heirloom bulbs)
www.smithandhawken.com
www.whiteflowerfarm.com
www.vandycks.com
www.vanengelen.com
www.plantdelights.com
www.johnscheepers.com

Resources:
http://www.veronicareadhippeastrum.com

Netherlands Flower Bulb Information
http://www.bulb.com/aboutspring/rebloom.asp
Netherlands Flower Bulb Information http://www.bulb.com/springguide98/amaryllis.asp -

International Bulb Society
http://www.bulb.org

http://www.bulbsociety.org

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