Issue: October 16, 2004
I have an Easter lily that my mother grew for years. I have had it since 1980 and carried it all over the country. It bloomed nicely last year; I had 8 big blooms that were nearly as large as a dinner plate. (I am attaching a photograph.) I moved it indoors last night after it spent a long hot summer outdoors. It needs some care. I am afraid it is too large and needs to be split. The color is a little too yellow. I need to fertilize it and split it. When is the best time to do both?
Your plant is a beautiful Amaryllis (Hippeastrum hybrid). It is definitely worth giving good care. It's a good thing you sent the picture. I normally think of Easter lilies as the white Madonna lily that is very cold hardy and can be planted in the garden. This Amaryllis will freeze in most of New Mexico because it is a plant from tropical South America. Although its native habitat is at high elevation, it never experiences freezing. Because it can blossom in the spring, some people do call it Easter lily. With the proper identification, I am able to answer your question correctly.
In the autumn, the Amaryllis is best treated by allowing it to dry (extreme drying - just enough water to keep the bulb from shriveling - irrigating once a month or less). It will also benefit from cool (not freezing) temperatures. If the leaves turn yellow and fall off, that's okay. In mid-winter (January to March), it should start developing a flower stalk. Resume regular watering slowly as the flower stalk develops.
After the leaves have dried, you can repot. The roots will still be alive and should be damaged as little as possible when repotting. To separate the plants, wash the soil away from the roots and bulbs with a gentle stream of water, and use gentle teasing with your fingers to separate the roots. It is not a big problem if a few roots break, but take precautions to minimize root breakage. After repotting, add water to settle the soil but don't water a lot until you see the flower stalk.
You can begin fertilizing after flowering is finished and the leaves are developing.
It is interesting that plants will allow a lot of variation in their treatment as long as their primary requirements are met. Some people succeed in flowering their Amaryllis doing a lot less than I described. They don't repot, and their plants rebloom. They are probably meeting the requirement for cool temperatures that allows reflowering. I do receive many questions from people who have Amaryllis with beautiful leaves and no flowers. I think they were too kind to their plants and did not induce flowering by either providing too much water or too much warmth. Cool weather may be enough, but the natural conditions in the high elevation tropics provide cool, dry season weather before the Amaryllis flowers. I have had the most success with Amaryllis plants by drying them until the leaves yellowed and fell off. I have kept my plants in the coolest room in the house through the fall and have flowers each year. I have transplanted Amaryllis plants in mid-summer without injuring them or losing the next winter's flowers. It is possible to bend the rules slightly.
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Curtis W. Smith, Ph.D., is an Extension Horticulture Specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator.