Are hippeastrum real plants?
This is one of a new series of posts based on real questions I have been asked. Feel free to add to the answers or include your ideas and experiences.
The title of this post may seem rather odd but I find it strange the way that people expect hippeastrum (commonly called, wrongly, amaryllis) to flower and then repeat the performance without any care. I know that they are sold as ‘flower and forget’ bulbs but they are among the most misunderstood of plants and their treatment borders on the cruel. It does not help that they are now sold in plastic ‘baubles’ that cannot contain enough compost to allow them to grow anything more than the ‘already developed’ flower scape and now they are sold as ‘waxed’ bulbs that are incapable of growing roots and can only bloom and wither away. I realise that it is foolish to decry the bad treatment of plants when humans are incapable of even treating their own species with respect and compassion but this is a blog about gardening and I try to avoid more important, more pressing topics.
I get a lot of questions about hippeastrum including one this year that asked about an amaryllis that had ‘lovely blooms over Christmas and is now dying down, but it has produced bulbs. Do I leave them or cut the stem down?’
One of the joys of hippeastrum is that, when the bulbs are purchased, they have been growing in Dutch greenhouses in perfect conditions and cut back, cleaned and heat-treated so that they flowers are already formed and as soon as they are potted they produce flowers and, later, foliage.
But once the flowers have faded, the bulbs need to grow, produce foliage and ‘feed’ the bulb in order that it will flower again. The ‘bulbs’ in the question were seed pods. Now some people like the idea that these can be grown to produce more plants but, in 99% of cases the idea is not met with reality. Each ‘pod’ will produce possibly hundreds of seeds and, if successfully germinated, will take several years of growing, taking a lot of space, before they will bloom. And, of course, they will not be the same as the parent, though I have never seen an ugly hippeastrum flower and even if it were smaller and more strappy than the parent it would still be pretty. But the practicalities of the whole process make it more sensible to pick off the dead flowers. The flower scape should be left to develop and die down because, as with hyacinths, it is a substantial proportion of the photosynthetic tissue of the plant.
As the foliage grows the plant should be watered and fed and, in some cases, the leaves will start to die down in autumn. Unfortunately, the regular growth pattern of wild hippeastrum has been disrupted, through breeding, so that they are more or less evergreen and are rested through manipulation of their growing conditions. This allows the growers to produce large, saleable bulbs in a shorter time.
So when you grow on your hippeastrum it should die down in autumn but it may be necessary to force this. Then, after a short rest, it should flower soon after growth recommences. It is a shame that the foliage of hippeastrums is so large and untidy. the pots can be put outside in summer to grow but the foliage is very prone to slug and snail attack. Feeding with a high-potash fertiliser is beneficial and the use of a good compost and not the little bag of peat dust that so often comes with the bulbs. So many people chop off the leaves or dry off the bulbs as soon as the ‘untidy’ foliage appears. Then they are upset or surprised that the bulbs don’t bloom again.
Perhaps we (or I) should consider these plants as disposable as poinsettias. It just seems a shame.
This is sort of why I am none too keen on Hippeastrum, although I know of a few that have survived for years, and even bloomed a few times during that time. Actually, one was already a few years old in about 1985. It does not bloom more than once every few years or so, but I am impressed that it survives. Amaryllis belladonna is naturalized here, and I actually grow some in flats to toss out on the roadside about now at the beginning of the rainy season.