January 29, 2020

It’s All in the Prep Work When Coaxing Bulbs to Bloom

Hippeastrum 'Apple Blossom'

Hippeastrum ‘Apple Blossom’ – Amaryllis | Credit: Wikimedia Commons – User: Epibase (CC BY-SA 3.0)

• By Janine Pineo •

Waiting for bulbs to bloom during the gray days of early winter leaves me breathless with anticipation.

I just don’t want to be breathless after they bloom, which may be why I shy away from paperwhite narcissus and hyacinths.

Oh, sure, I’ve forced paperwhites — twice, just to be sure they actually do smell that way. I suppose if one lives in a humongous house with soaring ceilings and rooms nobody sets foot in for days at a time, then paperwhites may add that touch of elegance necessary for visitors just passing through.

But when one’s house is small and one’s nose is sensitive, forget paperwhites. They’re a delicate delight to behold, but they do release an overpowering odor.

Ditto on hyacinths. I love them in my garden, their jewel-hued spikes bursting with color. Somehow they smell entirely different out there in the cold, spring sunshine. Bring them inside and before long I’m dizzy.

While I won’t be forcing paperwhites or hyacinths anytime soon, a lot of other bulbs can brighten a room when the snow is falling with the temperature. There are two categories of bulbs for forcing: winter-hardy bulbs that need a chilling period and ones from more tropical climes that don’t. The chilling period convinces the plants they’ve survived another winter and it’s time to blossom.

Winter-hardy bulbs can be purchased “pre-chilled,” which means you don’t have to wait two or three months while the bulbs experience winter.

Some garden centers sell kits with a variety of pre-chilled bulbs, and a number of catalogs showcase a range of bulb combinations and containers, usually with a hefty price tag. They do make nice gifts for flower-deprived gardeners this time of year. For those who prefer not to dirty their hands, some of the kits are pre-planted and already sprouting green leaves; all that’s required is water.

For less money and a huge selection of color possibilities, you can chill your own bulbs. A refrigerator often is considered the best way to chill bulbs, but if it’s one used for storing fruits and vegetables, don’t expect much for results: Ripening fruits emit a gas that will kill flower buds in bulbs. And where are you going to keep all your holiday goodies if the fridge is full of bulbs?

The alternative is an unheated garage or cellar that doesn’t get below freezing. A temperature that hovers around 40 degrees is ideal.

Bulb preparation is simple. Pot the bulbs in a potting mix that drains well. For the fullest effect later, bulbs should almost touch. Water the pots and set them in a spot that is cool and dark. While it’s best to plant only one type of bulb in a pot for chilling purposes, don’t hesitate to try combinations for fun. Those stunning pictures in catalogs and magazines are made by combining pots.

Then it’s just a matter of time while the bulbs chill. Some recommended cold periods are:

  •     Eight-10 weeks for anemone blanda, crocus and muscari (grape hyacinth).
  •     10-12 weeks for dwarf iris, scilla and chionodoxa.
  •     12-14 weeks for daffodils and hyacinths.
  •     14-16 weeks for tulips.

After their time is up, bring the pots into the house for warmth and light, and some water, too. In a few weeks, depending on the variety, spring should begin to bloom on your windowsill.

The bulbs from more tropical climes don’t need anything except water, light and a warm room. Paperwhites and amaryllis are a cinch to grow; paperwhites, in fact, can be grown in a bed of pebbles. The bulbs contain all the energy needed for blooming, making soil and its nutrients superfluous.

While paperwhites are bland on the eyes and relentless on the nose, amaryllis is the complete opposite. The radiant colors of the large-flowered amaryllis dazzle the eyes, and for most varieties there is no scent.

The amaryllis we grow in the United States originally came from South America and is, botanically speaking, known as Hippeastrum. The true Amaryllis is a whole other species from Africa.

Amaryllis kits are sold just about everywhere, including supermarkets and department stores. The ones I bought in October included a white plastic pot, a bag of peaty soil and the bulb for under $4. Of the four kits I purchased, the most impressive looking one is on my desk at work, sporting two flower stalks about 2 feet tall.

Most amaryllis are various shades of red, sometimes highlighted with white markings. Readily available are Red Lion, the most striking variety, with a glowing, velvety red flower; Minerva — the one I have at work — with red that trickles into stripes before reaching a white center; and Apple Blossom, a blushing pink that fades to a whiter center.

Potting amaryllis is as simple as partially filling the pot with soil, placing the bulb in it and then topping the pot with more soil so that the top third of the bulb remains above the dirt. Water it and you’re on your way.

The flower stalks may need staking — the weight of the blossoms can cause the stalk to tip and break. Keeping the plant out of direct sunlight will keep the flowers from fading as fast.

Amaryllis can be saved from one year to the next if you’ve the inclination. After the flowers die back, move the plant to a sunny spot to encourage leaf growth and fertilize. When mild weather arrives in the spring, the amaryllis — pot and all — can go outside for the summer in a bright spot of the yard that is sheltered from the hot midday sun. The pot can be sunk into the garden, which makes watering it less of a concern.

Well before the first frost, move the plant back inside and cut back on the water. Once the leaves wither, remove them and keep the plant dry for eight to 10 weeks. When the time is up, scoop out the top inch or so of soil, replace it and start watering again. If all goes well, the bulb should send up flower stalks within a few days.

Something neat to look for was mentioned in the pages of “Flowering Bulbs for Dummies” (IDG Books Worldwide Inc., 1998): An amaryllis needs to produce seven leaves to store enough energy in the bulb to flower again. If it doesn’t do all seven at once, it will grow them in sequence.

Ain’t nature grand?

First published in the Bangor Daily News in November 1998.