Amaryllis growing advice

After 20 years of doing this ­column, it’s tough to come up with something new and exciting for the holidays. Unlike the world of technology, the world of holiday plants doesn’t evolve quickly, if at all.

So, anything that is somewhat new is worth reporting.

Amaryllis are still the holiday bulb that usually ends up ­blooming ­during New Year instead of sometime in December, though that’s okay as the large cross-shaped flower head can really pick up the doldrums of winter.

The bulbs are the same, though the new method is to grow them without soil in a glass vase.

You can find bulb forcing glass cylinders that make an interesting and new way to get the blooms. The tall (about 15-18 inches) bulbous-based cylinders hold the flower stalks upright instead of allowing them to flop over just as the blooms are ready to open. The bulb rests at the top of the bulbous bottom, allowing the roots to grow down in the water. Water never covers the bulb.

Just picture a paperwhite narcissus or hyacinth vase multiplied by five.

That usually happens because we force the bulb too fast—usually due to too much water, and excessive heat since most of us don’t like to freeze indoors. The cooler you keep the temperatures, especially at night, the slower the bulb grows, and the ­stronger it is.

The downside to the bulb-forcing vases is that’s usually it for the ­amaryllis. After experimenting with growing them in these vases for ­several years, I can state they never really recover well when planted in soil and summering outside to build up their stored food.

And if you don’t change the water regularly, which is about every two to three days, the roots can start rotting. Well, not really “can” but “will.” The next thing you know you have these black twisted pieces floating around in the base of your container. And boy, does it start to smell then.

Changing the water isn’t always that easy as the bulb is about to bloom. You have to hold the stalk carefully so it doesn’t snap when the vase is turned upside down to empty out the water. And because it’s bulbous you do need to turn it all the way over.

Still, it’s a challenge but what else do you have to do during the winter?

Some have suggested ­throwing in activated charcoal, found at ­aquarium stores, to keep the water from ­smelling. Others have suggested the traditional non-cola soda. Bleach would probably damage the bulb. Changing the water is the best bet.

Between forcings, make sure you sterilize the vase by filling it up with water and throwing in a cup or two of bleach. Rinse thoroughly before using it again.

Still, if you can resign yourself to spending upwards of $15 for a bulb and enjoy it blooming for a week or two, it’s a pretty interesting way to enliven your spirits. And if you’re lucky, you’ll probably get two bloom stalks for extended color. But throw the bulb away.

Amaryllis are now coming in as many different colors and sizes as roses. Once what were four single small red blooms are now as large as your hand. Single blooms with a prominent center may now have two to three rows of petals, ­giving the flower a fuller look, though double flowers tend to be smaller than the single ones.

Colors range from cherry red to pinks to white to candy stripes to green to orange to blood red and any combination thereof.

Some have great luck carrying the bulbs over year to year, summering them outdoors and giving them an eight week rest in the late fall or early winter.

Others are wiser and say “Well, that’s that. To the compost pile.” And that keeps the amaryllis growers in business coming up with new colors and new ways to grow them.

Some garden centers and nur­series carry the vase. Check also with a ­florist. Or do a Google search. There are ­several on-line companies that sell them.