I’m not a big fan of most of the flowers that get trotted out over the holiday season. I usually buy a white poinsettia and then forget to water it, and I’ve bought and killed more Christmas cactus than I care to remember. I'm in complete awe of those who manage to keep one going for years while mine drop their buds and die within days. The problem is partly that I am generally hopeless with house plants, and partly that once Christmas is over and seed sowing season begins I lose interest and don't make the effort.
The exception is the amaryllis, or Hippeastrum as it is more correctly known. Just to clarify, Amaryllis is native to South Africa, and includes only two species: Amaryllis belladonna ('naked ladies') and Amaryllis paradisicola. The bulbs we buy at Christmas as house plants are actually from the genus Hippeastrum, native to Central and South America. But everyone calls them amaryllis, and so will I.
Even I can keep amaryllis alive, and there are so many interesting forms and colours from which to choose. Granted they are not the most elegant of plants in growth, but they do give the kids a bit of a giggle, and once they do flower, they are quite spectacular.
You can grow just one amaryllis but the more you put in the pot the better the show will be - all of the same variety of course. I aim for three in a pot. Each large bulb should give you three to four flowering stems in succession, and in a cool room each bloom should last for weeks. Choose a pot that is no more than 3-5cm wider than the diameter of the bulbs and plant them very close but not touching. Amaryllis like to be pot bound. When they bloom they are top heavy, so choose a solid and heavy pot. Pack potting compost around the bulb with the top third of the bulb remaining above the surface of the soil.
Keep in a cool bright location (direct sunlight not needed) and water very sparingly until you see about 5cm of new growth. Then water regularly and turn the pot periodically to help the stalk remain straight. Deadhead the flowers as they wither and once all the flowers on a stem are gone, cut the stem back to the base, but leave the leaves alone.
In Mediterranean climates you can plant the bulbs in the garden once they have finished, but for most of us, saving the bulb for next year is a bit more complicated. (Having said that, some claim they just put the bulb aside and it re-blooms next January. Easy Peasy.) But if, like me, you don't have that golden touch with house plants but you want to try, then this approach, recommended by Arthur Parkinson in his wonderful book The Flower Yard, is probably the best.
Once flowering is over and all flowering stems removed, keep the amaryllis in a warm sunny place for the spring, well watered and fed with seaweed tonic. Let them dry out in mid-summer and the leaves will wither and the bulbs will be reinvigorated and go dormant. Leave them in their pot in a cool dark place and bring out and begin watering again at the start of winter.
Amaryllis as a cut flower
Amaryllis make great cut flowers, and will last just as long in the vase as they do growing in a pot. But because they have hollow stems and heavy heads, sometimes the stems crack or the ends curl up. So whether you are cutting from your own bulbs, or buying them ready cut from a florist, there are a few steps you need to take to treat them.
Take a thin stick or bamboo cane and put it up the hollow stem - you need one that will reach right to the top, just under the flower. Next put a little cotton wool up the stem to hold the stick in place.
Take a rubber band and put it around the stem, about 1/2 inch up. If the layers of the stem do start to curl in the water, they will go no further than that band.
Now you've got air in the stem and that will impede the take up of water, so take a needle and just under the flower head and just above the cotton wool, pierce the stem through. The amaryllis is now ready to go.