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For a poinsettia substitute try amaryllis

One of the great pleasures of the holiday season is seeing the variety of plants available, and to realize that poinsettia prices have actually dropped in 20 years. No other holiday plant says, "Hey, it's December" like the poinsettia. That's why I don't want them.

David Robson

As the years go by faster and faster and the hair becomes less brown, I've decided that I don't want the same stuff as everyone else. Twenty years ago I'd load up on the poinsettias and be first in line to get the really different ones with splotches of color on the bracts, though I should admit the yellow Lemon Drop plant never really caught my fancy. December is red. Summer is yellow.

But now that you can find poinsettias everywhere, including gas stations, it's time to concentrate on something else. Mind you, this isn't to denigrate the poinsettia. It's still a great plant. It can tolerate our indoor temperatures and humidity just long enough to look good through December before shedding all its leaves. A more interesting plant is the amaryllis. Most people pass up the amaryllis and home in on the poinsettia. My thought is that they think the amaryllis is work, while the poinsettia is instant gratification, and after all, this is America and the holiday season.

But the amaryllis is a bragging-rights plant. You can swell up with pride and proudly exclaim to all those you entertain during the holiday that "Yes, I indeed grew the plant, and it was terribly difficult, but I persevered and the results are worthy of any gardening magazine." Sort of like Rice Crispy treats.

The long trumpet-shaped flowers come in a multitude of colors from white to pink to red to orange to a yellowish (remember, though, it's the holidays) with stripes or spots on some of the petals. You can even cut the flower stalk and stick it in a tall vase.

Bulbs usually take about three to six weeks to bloom depending on light, heat and humidity. The warmer it is, the more light the plant gets, and the higher the humidity, the faster the bulb will send up the flower shoots. If you start by the first week of December, plants will generally be ready to burst around Christmas.

Of course if you wait a couple of weeks, the blooms show up during the dreariness of January. Really, the plants are about as carefree as poinsettias, unless you decide to keep it for another year. Then it becomes as annoying as a poinsettia.

I say pitch the bulb when you get tired of it, and resolve to buy another plant next year. It's less stressful on you and it keeps the stores and hybridizers in business. For the people who say they can't bear to throw something away, I say the sun will still come up tomorrow and it's highly unlikely you'll be struck down with a bolt of lightning, particularly in December.

Buy your amaryllis early. That way it won't grow in the box and become distorted.

Most of the bulbs come already potted or with a pot and soil. Bulbs should be tight in the pot, with about a half-inch space between the bulb and pot. The soil should be loose. Most are potted in practically peat moss.

Water thoroughly. Set the plant on a windowsill in a bright sunny spot and wait. Hopefully, you should see the flower bud appear first. If leaves come, don't despair, but go out and buy another bulb. Leaves before buds may signify a bulb that wasn't fully dormant. Anyway, don't throw anything away until you are absolutely sure it won't bloom. Keep the soil moist but not soggy.

If the temperatures are kept on the cool side, especially during the evening, the bloom stalk will be stronger and flowers will last longer. The mid 50s are ideal, but I suspect not practical for most people.

In most cases the flowers appear without any leaves, similar to summer's Surprise Lily, sometimes called Naked Lady. I'm sure if amaryllis had a similar, more colorful name, it would be a better seller. Yet nakedness and the holidays don't seem to be compatible.

David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, Unirersiry of Illinois Extension. You can write to Robson in care of Illinois Country Living, P.O. Box 3787, Springfield, JL 62708. Telephone: (217) 782-6515. E-Mail:


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