Some plants make classic Christmas gifts and Hippeastrum is one of the best. The giant bulbs are potted up in autumn and started into growth, hopefully blooming in time for Christmas itself. They can grace the table as a decoration and, with the right knowledge, can be brought back into flower year after year.
They are part of the amaryllis family, Amaryllidaceae, and incorrectly referred to as amaryllis in many quarters. The single species in that genus, Amaryllis belladonna, is a similarly large bulb but has smaller flowers and is hardier, coping with being planted outdoors against a sunny south-facing wall.
The bestselling Hippeastrum are giant-flowered hybrids. They arise from a very large bulb, producing a thick stem that bears two-to-six trumpets about 15cm across. They really are a statement pot plant. Some of the most popular are the red-flowered varieties, particularly the darker tones such as ‘Black Pearl’ and ‘Grand Diva’. There are also more delicate shades — the pure-white flowered ‘Mont Blanc’, which has a green throat, and ‘Apple Blossom’ Award of Garden Merit (AGM), which is marked with lovely flushes of pinky colour.
There are some species and varieties with smaller flowers for customers who have tired of the blowsy larger ones. One is H. papilio AGM, an intriguing species from southern Brazil that produces several stems, shorter than those of the giant hybrids at around 40-50cm, topped with orchid-like white and lime-green blooms suffused with maroon red.
Also in demand are the Cybister hybrids bred from H. cybister, a native of Bolivia and Argentina that has delicate spidery petals. They are much narrower than those of other Hippeastrum. They also tend to have a shorter stem of around 40cm. Some gorgeous varieties include ‘Chico’ AGM and ‘Sumatra’ PBR.
Hippeastrum need to be kept indoors. Pot them from October to January in a sturdy pot, around 5cm larger than the diameter of the bulb. Use a decent potting compost, either John Innes no 2 or multipurpose, and leave the top two-thirds of the bulb exposed.
Place the pot in a warm spot with good light, but not direct sun. Water sparingly until new leaves develop then water regularly. Turn the pot regularly to prevent the flower stalk growing towards the light and stake large-flowered cultivars. When in flower, move to a cooler place to extend the flowering period.
Once flowering has finished, cut off the flower stalk 5-10cm above the bulb, but do not cut off the foliage. Continue to water when the surface of the compost is dry and feed regularly with a balanced liquid fertiliser. Stop watering in autumn and move the pot to a dark, dim spot. This simulates the drought season of the plant’s native South America. The foliage will now wilt and die back. Then in November bring it back into the light and start watering again. Remove old foliage but take care not to cut off any new shoots. In a few weeks a new flower shoot will appear and, if you are lucky, it will flower just in time for Christmas.
What the specialists say
John Amand, managing director, Jacques Amand, Middlesex
"Hippeastrum is probably the most colourful of all the indoor bulbs. It’s magnificent when in flower — a true focal point in the room. The best-looking is H. papilio but it is difficult to flower and only produces at most one or occasionally two on a stem.
"The Cybister hybrids are interesting and beautiful, the best of which is H. Merenque. The most stunning large-flowered varieties
are ‘Charisma’, ‘Flamenco Queen’, ‘Green Magic’, ‘Royal Velvet’, ‘Picotee’ and ‘Apple Blossom’.
"Hippeastrum are very easy plants to grow — just pot them with an inch or so of soil all around the bulbs and about half the bulb below soil level."
Jo Heale, purchasing manager and bulb expert, De Jager, Kent
"Hippeastrum are a firm favourite with our customers and we try to introduce different varieties each season. Whether our customer is a novice or experienced they always report back with good results. The favourite varieties this year have been ‘Apple Blossom’, ‘Double Record’ and ‘Liberty’.
"We advise to soak the lower part of the bulb and roots in tepid water for 24 hours before planting in a 5-7in pot with good drainage in good-quality compost, leaving the top third of the bulb exposed. Place next to a radiator or fire until 4in of growth and then move to a sunny position. Always water at the top of the pot with tepid water."
Adam Taylor, director, Taylors Bulbs, Lincolnshire
"We have seen significant sales growth in Hippeastrum as dry bulbs over the past handful of years, most as growing kits complete with pot and compost for planting at home.
"The broad range of flower style and colour that are now so readily available mean there are Hippeastrum for most tastes, from the Cybister types that may appeal to the more horticulturally minded customer, to the simple single-flower forms in classic red. It is these single-flower red varieties that are the most popular, but there are various shades available from the classic rich red to some darker hues that have contributed significantly to recent sales growth, like ‘Black Pearl’ and ‘Carmen’.
"There are very few difficulties with growing Hippeastrum for flowering in the first year, although keeping bulbs in an attempt to get them to flower again is more difficult. The common mistake is continuing to water a bulb and not giving it the break it needs from one flowering season to another. It needs a period of reduced warmth and watering — then the leaves will die back and can be cut off."
John Winterson, deputy buyer, RHS Plant Centres, Surrey
"Hippeastrum are an important genus for RHS Wisley Plant Centre and our customers especially like the named forms that we sell as dry bulbs. Our range includes 19 named forms. Our most popular one is ‘Black Pearl’ with its dark, deep-burgundy coloured flowers. Next popular is ‘Sumatra’ with its frilly flowers and then ‘Mont Blanc’, which I like as well — white with a hint of green in the centre.
"We sell many of the Hippeastrum loose from crates so customers can have a rummage and pick out their own. We always try and get the top-specification bulbs to give a really good show for our customers and with guaranteed flowering, of course. We also sell some in gift boxes and there is always a constant stream of potted ones in bud for sale among our houseplants. Being easy to grow and very rewarding in a short space of time makes the plants very appealing."
Species and varieties
H. ‘Apple Blossom’ AGM has a lovely bloom with pale pinky-white petals that have a peach-pink flush and a green centre. Flowering time: December-April. Height: 45-60cm.
H. ‘Black Pearl’ is a giant flowering type with a large dark-maroon flower that has a velvety feel. Very popular. Height: 45-60cm.
H. ‘Blossom Peacock’ features large double white flowers that are striped and flushed rosy red. Height: 45-60cm.
H. ‘Charisma’ AGM has white petals marked and edged with red, gradually turning more red as it ages. Unique. Height: 45-60cm.
H. ‘Dancing Queen’ has a double white flower with broad, salmony red stripes. Height: 55cm.
H. ‘Emerald’ boasts delicate flowers with narrower petals that are a lovely pale lime-green and red. Height: 60cm.
H. ‘Exotic Peacock’ has double deep-pink and white blooms. Height: 45-60cm.
H. ‘Gervase’ is an interesting variety with pale pink-white petals marked with red veins and feathered patterns. Height: 45-60cm.
H. ‘Grand Diva’ has a stunning deep-burgundy bloom with an even darker centre surrounded by a lighter halo. Height: 60cm.
H. ‘Green Magic’ AGM is a lovely new variety with ivory green petals, edged and marked with maroon speckles. Height: 60cm.
H. ‘Mont Blanc’ is a beautiful pure-white bloom with a pale-green centre. Height: 60cm.
H. ‘Orange Souvereign’ AGM (H2) is considered the best vivid orange variety. Height: 60cm.
H. ‘Picotee’ produces pure-white flowers whose petals have a delicate thin red margin. Height: 60cm.
H. ‘Sumatra’ PBR is a smaller bulb type that has spidery, narrow, salmon-pink petals and a central core of white stamens. Height: 40cm.
H. cybister, native to Bolivia and Argentina, has an incredible-looking flower that is likened to a spider because its tepals curve up and down like a spider’s legs. Its narrow tepals are pale greeny-white and diffused with pinky-red colour in the centre. It has elegant exerted stamens. Has a shorter stem than the large-flowered hybrids. Height: 40-50cm.
H. papilio, the butterfly amaryllis, is a robust, potentially evergreen species that has greenish-white tepals, strongly streaked and edged with dark red. It gets its name from the way the lower tepals are arranged — they are widely spread and pointed like a butterfly’s wing. It may flower twice a year, in spring and autumn. Height: 50-60cm.
Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library