One the very same day that Mrs. G asked me why I never brought her an amaryllis bulb at Christmas like my mom used to do for me and I in turn later did for my Granny Ruth in the nursing home, our Ag Agent, Clint Perkins, brought in an appalling lump in his hand and asked if I wanted it. Apparently, some gentleman poked his head in the office door, said “I don’t want anything I have to plant…Merry Christmas.” It was one of those poor plastic wrapped Dutch amaryllis bulbs that appeared to have been dipped into silver roofing tar. Even though it is pure botanical torture, the bulbs will bloom anyway providing a novel Christmas miracle for those poor souls that don’t know any better. Spider lilies (Lycoris) and crocus will do the same thing.
Of course, I wanted it! Amaryllis and I go way back. We are for all intents and purposes, family. The first thing I did was peel off the hardened silver goo and plastic. I potted it into an ordinary clay pot and put it in my less than attractive office window and will enjoy it immensely. I also headed my aster to the garden center and purchased another amaryllis bulb along with a decorative ceramic pot (so it won’t tip over) to present to Mrs. G. In my defense, I remember giving her one when we were dating and vaguely recall her cats mauling it do death.
I didn’t know amaryllis existed until I read my little life-changing book about George Washington Carver in the fourth grade. But once I found out that he loved them, grew them, and hybridized them, I persuaded my mom to buy me one as a Christmas present. They truly are magical. They are big, bold, easy, beautiful, and fascinating in their speed to bloom. So, each year I’d add another to my collection and eventually needed a greenhouse to house them in. Although I wasn’t always successful, I carefully studied how to get them to rebloom each year. The big bulbs we purchase each year for holiday blooms are what are known as Dutch amaryllis, which were bred in greenhouses for indoor bloom and aren’t generally cold hardy outdoors north of zone 8.
So, when I abandoned my little 8 x 12 fiberglass greenhouse and headed off to Texas A&M University for a horticultural education, I planted my entire amaryllis collection in our Longview flower bed next to the red brick house. This was the early 1980’s and my first experience with a zero-degree winter blast. All of them froze and died giving me my first lesson in cold hardiness. However, driving to and from college I couldn’t help but notice an amaryllis growing in many rural landscapes. Local nurseries were no help, but I eventually figured out that the amaryllis belonging to the common country folks was Hippeastrum x johnsonii, the first documented amaryllis in history, dating back to 1799 England.
For there in Lancaster, a Mr. Arthur Johnson purportedly crossed the red and white striped Hippeastrum vittatum with the red (with white center) Hippeastrum reginae to produce the most enduring perennial garden amaryllis in the South.
It took me a while to round up some, but thanks to my Grandmother Emanis and my Aunt Charlsie I eventually did. Little did I know at the time, but my Granny Ruth had some at her old homeplace nearby. My grandmother Ruth had some of everything! Hippeastrum x johnsonii, also known as the St. Joseph’s lily was dropped from commerce and popularity many decades ago because it was smaller flowered (more like a wild species) than the “new and improved” Dutch hybrids, but as I found out, was much more cold hardy. I eventually propagated enough to sell them periodically to Old House Gardens for retail sales.
Amaryllis, of course, are in the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae) along with many of my favorite plants including daffodils, jonquils, narcissus, oxblood lilies, rain lilies, and spider lilies. This entire family is known for showy blooms, ease of cultivation, toughness, longevity, and toxic alkaloids that keep browsing and nibbling pests away.
The best way to handle Dutch amaryllis after winter is over is to plant them outdoors in a flower bed. Thanks to warmer winters, and despite Winter Storm Uri, a ground that hasn’t frozen in 40 years, they generally make long lived perennials, increasing their number of bulbs exponentially over time.
Although I still love giant and gaudy Dutch hybrid amaryllis, I have to admit that these days I’m even more partial to the smaller and more intricate wild species and early hybrids. But you know what? If you walk into my office offering an unidentified amaryllis hidden behind your back or bound up into some unnatural condition, I will 100% take it off your hands and give it a home. It’s what family does.