Henry Homeyer: Paperwhites & amaryllis make for easy indoor blossoms

By Henry Homeyer
©2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The winter months can be a bit depressing for me. As a gardener there is very little to do, and my supply of colorful flowers indoors is limited. I combat this by buying cut flowers and getting flowers to bloom in pots or dishes. Two of my favorites are paperwhites and amaryllis. I have both blooming right now, and will continue to start more.

Commonly sold in grocery stores and garden centers, paperwhites are easy cultivate and quick to bloom. Some varieties take a couple of weeks, others take up to a month.

Paperwhites are in the daffodil family in the genus Narcissus. There are many named cultivars, but most purveyors of the bulbs do not tell you their names. To get your paperwhites to bloom, all you need is a sunny windowsill, a dish or bowl that will hold water, and some small stones. Garden centers sell bags of attractive pebbles or chips of white marble that is suitable, or you can go out to your driveway and pick up stones.

You don’t want the bulb sitting in water – the bulbs can rot if they do.

Start by rinsing off the pebbles and placing them in a wide, low bowl. Then arrange your paperwhites so that the fat end of each bulb is nestled into the stones and surrounded by them. Add enough water so that it just “kisses” the bottom of the bulbs.

I like to select paperwhites from the bin that have green sprouts already emerging at the time of purchase. They will bloom sooner than those that are entirely dormant at the time of purchase. If you buy them in a mesh bag, look at the bulbs carefully to make sure they are not dried out or are mushy when you squeeze them.

Paperwhites have a distinctive fragrance which can be quite strong. I love the sweet scent, but not everyone does. At this time of year any flower scent is a blessing, as far as I am concerned. The odor can often be smelled from quite a distance. One variety that does not have an odor is a bright yellow one called ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’.

Unlike the ordinary daffodils that I pot up in soil each fall and force to bloom indoors in the spring, paperwhites cannot be successfully planted outdoors, even if you kept them watered and green until the ground thaws. They are a Mediterranean species, and will not survive our winters. I don’t believe they will bloom again next year indoors, either; but that means there is one less chore to do.

The flowers of amaryllis bloom on a 16-inch stem and are shaped like Oriental or Asiatic lilies.

Amaryllis is another easy, bright and wonderful flower that you can plant at this time of year for indoor blooms. The bulbs are available in grocery stores, big box stores and garden centers. Some come already planted in pots, but most come with a bag of planting soil, a pot, and a bulb – so some assembly is required.

The come in red, white, pink and striped varieties. None are particularly fragrant. As with most things, you get what you pay for. If you get the least expensive, smallest bulbs you will get one stem with 4 blossoms on a single stem. If you buy a bigger bulb, you will probably get 2 flower stems, one growing after the first has finished blooming. I’ve even heard of bulbs that gave 3 flower stems, but never had one.

If you are planting your amaryllis yourself, be sure that this big bulb is not buried up to its neck as that can encourage rot. Plant so that between a third and a half of the bulb is in the soil mix, not more.

If the soil mix comes in a plastic bag and is very dry, as it often is, moisten it well before you plant, but don’t get it soggy. Then keep an eye on it. Don’t let the soil mix get overly dry, especially as the flower buds are developing.

After blooming (and sometimes before), amaryllis will grow nice green, glossy leaves. And they can be made to re-bloom. If you keep them watered and in a sunny window until summer, you can put them outside and let them re-charge their batteries. Then in the fall, put the amaryllis, pot and all, into a paper bag and place in a cool/dark place for a month to six weeks. Then bring it up in mid-November and begin watering. It should soon produce a flower stem.

In her book, ‘Making Things Grow: A Practical Guide for the Indoor Gardener’ the late garden writer Thalassa Cruso wrote that amaryllis hate to have their roots disturbed. I trust her advice and recommend any of her books. The one mentioned above really will help turn “Houseplant Killers” into “Green Thumb Mavens”. It is readily available at used book stores.

So get some paperwhites or amaryllis or both, and pot them up. Give them to friends and relatives for the holidays, you really can’t go wrong.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeHenry Homeyer's Notes from the Garden

About the Author: Henry Homeyer is a lifetime organic gardener living in Cornish Flat, N.H. He is the author of four gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. You may reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by snail mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish an answer to a question by mail.

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