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Forcing: The Art of Winter Flowers - Amaryllis and Paperwhites

by International Flower Bulb Centre

If one bulb is excellent, then grouping several bulbs together is spectacular.

Amaryllis bulb production has more than doubled worldwide since the late 1990s, which is good news for indoor gardeners here as the colorful large-flowered native of the southern hemisphere has become North America’s flower of choice to take the gray chill out of winter. People can’t seem to get enough of amaryllis. These big bulbs offer audacious, sexy tropical-looking flowers in the dead of winter. They’re incredibly easy to plant, nearly foolproof to grow and provide weeks and even months of bloom indoors as potted plants or cut flowers. What more could you want? Holland has long been the primary source of amaryllis bulbs, but lately a huge amount of production has moved to South America, the native continent of amaryllis (aka Hippeastrum.)

This dramatic shift in amaryllis bulb production is a boon to North American households who can now get more amaryllis, especially potted amaryllis, early in the season. Holland grows about 60 hectares (nearly 150 acres) of amaryllis for commercial production for bulbs. For Holland this is down from a peak of about 100 hectares (nearly 250 acres), but production hasn’t really gone down, it’s only shifted. Brazil, which had little or no production in the late 90s, now has 200 hectares (nearly 500 acres) under production, mostly by Dutch émigré growers. In real terms, so far as availability is concerned, production has more than doubled since the 1990s. Other amaryllis production areas, South Africa and Israel, remain stable, each have about 25 hectares (62 acres) in cultivation, he said, while Holland cultivates another 70 hectares (173 acres) in cultivation for cut flower production.

Easy to Grow, Easy to Love

This production update bodes well for those looking for a little easy-to-love indoor cheer this winter, because there should be plenty of amaryllis available from late fall through spring coast-to-coast as bare bulbs for home growing, nursery-grown potted plants and as cut flowers, too.

Technically speaking, what North Americans call amaryllis is actually a type of flower called Hippeastrum. Amaryllis belladonna, the actual true amaryllis, is a South African native, a very large plant, suitable for growing in containers outdoors on the patio, but a little awkward on a windowsill. Hippeastrum is its South American cousin, a fellow member of the Amaryllidaceae family, and the flower most of us know as amaryllis. The name is a shortened version of its popular name, Dutch amaryllis. These, smaller, more elegant flowers are much more widely grown than the belladonna type (which curiously has the popular name belladonna lily). It is the Hippeastrum or Dutch amaryllis that so many know and love as the winter wonder flower.

Planting amaryllis is easy. They are normally planted in small pots that are a bit larger around than the bulb itself. Put a layer of heavy potting soil (soil/sand mixes are ideal) in the bottom of the pot, then pop in the bulb, and fill in with soil up to where the bulb’s “shoulders” taper inward. The upper shoulders and neck of the bulb are left exposed. The pot should be watered well and the soil kept barely moist until growth begins.

After the green shoot appears, water regularly to keep soil moist but not soggy, and move the pot to a sunny spot. Access to good sunlight during the growing phase is important to keep the plant from stretching in search of light as this can result in the already tall stems growing even taller.

As with most bulb flowers, amaryllis will grow toward sources of light, so turn the pot regularly to keep the flower growing upright. Once the blooms open, move the pot away from direct sunlight and sources of heat. This will ensure that your blooms last as long as possible.Amaryllis can also be planted without soil, because, as with most bulbs, all of the food the plant needs is in the starchy material inside that makes the bulb so fat. Substitute pebbles or stones for soil, making sure to add enough around the sides to give the bulb sufficient upright support. When you add water, add just enough so that it nearly reaches, but doesn’t touch, the bottom of the bulb. The Dutch like to say, “close enough so the roots can smell the water.” Position the bulb in the pebbles or sand poised above the water level so the roots will grow down to meet the water. Once growth begins, be sure to place the plant where it receives some sun.

A single amaryllis bulb produces multiple stems, each with multiple flowers. It takes only a single bulb to make an excellent display. If one bulb is excellent, then grouping several bulbs together is spectacular. Try planting two, three, even five or more amaryllis bulbs shoulder-to-shoulder in a broad decorative container. The pot needn’t be deep. Since each bulb can produce several stems in succession, with each stem topped by four to six colorful flowers, this multi-bulb approach creates a pot dense with multiple stems in various stages of growth. More stems result in more flowers, more excitement and a bloom season extending over several months. The effect works best when all of the bulbs planted together are of the same variety. There is also a practical advantage to planting multiple bulbs of tall, top-heavy amaryllis positioned shoulder-to-shoulder in one broad-based pot: broad-based pots are not tippy!

Love at first sight can last for decades. Most bulbs that are forced in winter have spent their energy by the end of flowering and can’t be made to bloom again. Amaryllis is an exception. With minimal care, an amaryllis can be made to bloom the next season, and year after year. Some people have 40-year-old amaryllis bulbs handed down from their grandmothers.

Getting amaryllis to "come back." If you think that you might want an amaryllis you love to bloom again for years to come, grow it in soil not water. When the bloom is spent remove the wilted flowers, then treat it as a green houseplant. Water as needed, plus add a dose of houseplant food once a month until August, then stop watering and give the bulb a rest.

Leave the pot in this dry, dormant state for at least two months. When you’re ready to start the flowering process again, spread some fresh potting soil on the top of the pot and water well, letting water drain out the pot bottom. Move the pot to a warm area, not in direct sunlight. Water sparingly until you see signs of growth, then move the pot into bright light and start regular watering, as needed.

Paperwhites, Easy to Grow Indoor Décor

For many families, cheerful paperwhites are a winter tradition.

When days grow short and winds blow cold, indoor flowers go a long way to warm the heart and cheer the soul. Among the most popular and easiest flowers to grow indoors are paperwhites. In fact for many families, growing easy, cheerful paperwhites is an absolute winter tradition.

These bright, peppery-scented bulb flowers are actually members of the daffodil family, Narcissus tazetta. They require no cold treatment and grow so readily they don’t even require potting soil. Just a bowl of pebbles and some water are all they need to send their roots gripping firmly downward and their stems racing for the sky.

Paperwhites are available from many floral and garden retailers. They’re available as bare bulbs for those who want to plant their own. They’re also sold in easy-to-use kits and even as pre-grown potted plants for those who want the flowers with a minimum of fuss.

The technique of growing paperwhites without potting soil is both easy and rife with possibilities. Paperwhites make a fun project for the kids. They can also be turned into artful arrangements or handsome gifts. Once you know the basics, the rest is up to your own inclination. Following are tips from the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center in New York City on how to grow paperwhites on water.

Easy does it – no forcing required. Forcing is the term for fooling bulb flowers into thinking it’s spring. Many bulbs, such as tulips and hyacinths, require a period of cold treatment as part of this process. But paperwhite narcissi hail from the temperate shores of the southeastern Mediterranean. As a result, paperwhites will readily bloom without the cold pre-treatment that most other spring-blooming bulbs require. Once they sniff water and feel sunshine, they’re off to the races, coming into flower three to five weeks after planting.

Choose firm plump bulbs. Paperwhite bulbs should feel firm and heavy in the hand, with no bruises or nicks. The bulb’s papery outer tunic can be torn or even gone. Bigger bulbs are better – they produce more stems and flowers. For pre-New Year’s bloom, select ‘Ziva’ paperwhites, which bloom earlier than other varieties. Store unplanted bulbs in a cool dry place out of the sun. Do not store in enclosed spaces (such as a refrigerator) with apples or other ripening fruit that release ethylene gas, which can damage the embryonic flower inside the bulb.

Wanted: Water and a Firm foundation

Bulbs of all kinds don’t need fertilizer to flower in the first year. They store their own food. In fact most of a bulb’s bulk is nothing but food storage. That’s why soil isn’t necessary to grow them. Paperwhites only need something, such as pebbles, to wrap their roots around. Many people see nursery-grown paperwhites in soil and assume this is the best medium for home-growing too. It isn’t – professional growers use different growing techniques and must also consider ease of shipping.

Choosing the container. Any watertight container at least four- (or better five-) inches deep will do. Choose a size that’s big enough to hold a quantity of bulbs positioned shoulder to shoulder on a bed of rocks, marbles, etc. Be creative. Great container choices include: vases, glazed pottery, fruit or salad bowls, raised compotes, planters, cachepots, or cut-glass bowls. Even plain old plastic containers which can be hidden or double-potted inside pretty baskets or decorative containers, will work.

Anchors away. The medium you use to hold the bulbs in place can also be a creative choice. Consider clean river-washed rocks, various stones, marbles, glass beads, large-pebbled gravel or marble chips as "anchors" to position the bulbs in the bowl and hold them steady once growth begins. These can be found at garden centers, toy shops, craft stores and elsewhere. For fun, choose colorful beads or stones that look dramatic wet or dry. Place a layer of these several inches deep in the container.

Hold on tight. Then place as many bulbs into the container as can fit onto the stone layer. Pack them in firmly, with the pointy-ends up. The more bulbs, the better – they’ll hold one another upright and provide maximum bloom. Then hand-place a second layer of stones around and in between the bulbs, sliding them in to hold the bulbs in place. Leave the bulb shoulders (where the tops narrow) and necks exposed.

Add water! Add enough water so it rises to just beneath the bottoms of the bulbs themselves. The Dutch like to say "close enough so the bulb can ‘sniff’ the water, but not touching." If the bulbs are actually sitting in water they will rot. Just the roots need be in the water. Note: clear containers offering side views are an advantage if you are nervous about maintaining the proper water levels. Also, the roots themselves have an interesting look. When no underwater view is possible, nudge a stone out of place and dip below with a finger to see whether more water is needed. Stand back for safety. Once rooting begins, rapid growth commences. The roots can be very strong and actually propel bulbs upwards out of the container if the bulbs are not solidly anchored at the shoulders by their stones or pebbles. Another reason to pack them tight!

Waiting for bloom. Set the planted bulbs in a cool spot with bright light. The brighter the light, the less "leggy" the plants will be (legginess is a result of stretching for light). Early in the winter, expect blooms in four to six weeks. To get blooms for the December holidays, plant before Thanksgiving. Later in the season, the bulbs will bloom faster – in as little as 2 or 3 weeks.

Floppy foliage. If leggy plants get floppy, try securing the growth by tying a circle of ribbon or raffia around the whole bunch, approximately two thirds of the way up the stems. If that should fail, paperwhites also make great cut flowers!

Rarely life after death. After bloom, paperwhites are generally spent, worn out, fini! They won’t grow again indoors, so toss them out or compost. (Unless you live in USDA Zones 9-11 where you can consider planting them outdoors. There, they MIGHT come back as landscape plants, IF they get a sufficient die-back period for recharging their bulbs for next year’s bloom.) Carefully rinse and wash all containers, stones, marbles and other paraphernalia for reuse.


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