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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Garden Detective: How to care for Amaryllis and paperwhites

The common species of holiday amaryllis is a

The common species of holiday amaryllis is a tropical plant that's reliably hardy only down to Zone 10, but you may be able to coax them into blooming again. Credit: Newsday/Rosemary Olander

It’s mid-January, and the pressing questions on green-thumbed minds everywhere is, “What should I do with my holiday plants?” The answers depend upon which plants you have and your commitment to them. Here is part one of my recommended best practices for caring for the botanical gifts of the season. I'll share part two (how to care for Christmas cactus and poinsettia) on Feb. 2.

Amaryllis

Maybe you potted up a bulb in October, or maybe you were gifted a blooming specimen. You might envision it thriving in your perennial bed next summer, but that’s unlikely.

The bulb has been forced, so it probably doesn’t have any energy left to bloom outdoors this year. Even if it did, the common species of holiday amaryllis is a tropical plant that’s reliably hardy only down to Zone 10 (or, rarely, Zone 8 with protection). Our region is firmly planted in Zone 7, with small sections out east and around the pine barrens even lower.

Nevertheless, plants don’t read books or catalog descriptions — and they sometimes surprise us. And climate change means our zone is creeping ever so slightly higher (from 7a to 7b in recent years), so you might be able to get away with some risky behavior.

If you’re willing to experiment and accept loss, you could plant your holiday bulb in the garden and see what happens. When foliage dies, remove it and store the bulb in a cool, dry, dark spot (closet, cellar, etc.) until May, then plant outdoors in a protected spot (against a wall or fence is ideal) in full sun, 5 to 6 inches deep, with 4 or 5 inches of mulch. In its home turf, your bulb would do best planted just under the soil line — or even with its top exposed. But yours will be exposed to frost, so disregard any advice to the contrary.

Keep the soil moist and fertilize. Remember, you won’t get blooms this year; but it if survives, you might in subsequent years. Cover with another 4 to 5 inches of mulch in autumn, and accept that it might not survive winter. But, hey, you tried.

Another approach: You might opt not to tempt fate and instead dig it up in autumn as soon as the foliage fades, store the bulb indoors in a cool, dark place to let it go dormant. You can replant it outdoors again in May. You have nothing to lose except a few minutes of your time and a bulb you likely would have discarded.

To enjoy your holiday plant outdoors and still have indoor blooms come December, set the pot outside in spring (gradually acclimating it to its new environment over the course of several days). Leave it out until September, watering regularly and fertilizing monthly. Again, it won’t bloom, but the sun it soaks up will replenish its energy for superior blooming around Christmastime.

Another option — and the most common practice — is to keep the potted bulb indoors until next year: After the flowers fade, remove the stalks and treat it as a houseplant in the sunniest part of your home and water regularly. When the foliage turns yellow and withers, remove it and stop watering. The official recommendation dictates you then store the pot in a dark, cool place until late November or early December to allow it to rest; then bring it back into the main area of the house and resume watering.

To be honest, I’ve never bothered moving mine, yet have had wonderful results. I simply continued watering until the leaves faded, removed them and left the pots in the main part of the house, ignoring them for the rest of the year. As if on cue, they have sent up stalks in December, when I resumed watering. They bloomed just fine around the holidays. 

None of these suggestions are options if your bulb has been dipped in wax. Such bulbs have been pre-soaked and treated to bloom just once, so discard them when the foliage fades.

If you simply would like to include amaryllis in your garden, look for a hardy variety bred to withstand colder temperatures, such as Hippeastrum x johnsonii, Hippeastrum sonatini or Amaryllis bella. 

Paperwhite

Paperwhite bulbs traditionally are “planted” in marbles, glass beads or pebbles four to six weeks before the desired bloom time. If you’re aiming for Christmas, plant just before Thanksgiving. If you’d like to extend the bloom time, begin earlier and plant a pot or two each week in November; as some fade, others will take center stage.

One problem with paperwhites is that they often grow tall quickly, making their stems flop over without some sort of support. But Bill Miller, research director of the horticulture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University, has a solution: vodka.

After planting and watering, Miller’s recommendation is to wait about a week for roots to grow and sprout 1- to 2-inch shoots. “At this point, pour off the water and replace it with a solution of 4% to 5% alcohol made from just about any 'hard' liquor."

Using vodka, gin, whiskey, rum or tequila — 40% distilled spirits — a 5% solution would mean adding one part alcohol to seven parts water. From that point on, water bulbs with this solution. The result? A plant that’s better proportioned (roughly a third shorter) so it won’t flop over or require staking. And its flowers will be just as big and last just as long.

Unfortunately, regardless of what they drink, paperwhites are one-shot deals. Alas, the only place to plant them after blooming is in the trash.

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