Some of us are under the impression that once all the tulips and daffodils are tucked away in the garden that bulb season has come to an end.
Truth be told, there probably isn’t a time of the year when bulbs of one sort or another aren’t available for planting, and Christmas is no exception.
While there are probably a few forced bulbs (crocus, grape hyacinths) still available, the three most common choices for December tend to be prepared hyacinths, paperwhites and the always impressive amaryllis.
Prepared hyacinths are those given a 10-12 week cold period (mimicking winter dormancy) so that you can basically plant them indoors and watch them grow.
You don’t necessarily need to use soil as the highly attractive purple-skinned bulbs (except for whites) will gladly root into trays of glass beads or ornamental rocks.
Clear or tinted hyacinth glasses are also available – these are essentially a mini-vase made to hold a solitary bulb just above the water you pour into the reservoir below. The trick is to start these in a dark cool room and keep the water level just at the root zone (don’t immerse the bulbs).
Once you get several inches of green growth, they are ready to move out for display. You should handle the bulbs with gloves (many people are allergic to them) and never plant more than three together as they are potently fragrant, particularly indoors.
Paperwhites are a tender (Zone 8 hardy) member of the daffodil family (narcissus papyraceus) native to the Mediterranean and listed as Div. 8 or tazetta daffodils. These do not require a cold period and will generally bloom four to six weeks after planting, depending on room temperature.
Some gardeners plant them in the bottom of tall floral buckets, the reason being that paperwhites are often floppy and this configuration holds the stems together for a nice bouquet display. Your only other option is to use a hidden stake and tie the flowers stems together with a little raffia. They have a wonderful fragrance and make nice Christmas gifts that you can grow yourself for friends and family.
Despite the common name, paperwhites come in both white and yellow – with the most commonly available cultivars being ‘ziva’ (16-18” high, pure white with a musky fragrance) and ‘grand soleil d’or’ (12-14” high, yellow petals with an orange cup, sweet fragrance).
Amaryllis is the largest Christmas bulb with most of the hybrids derived from South American species of hippeastrum. These plants have huge blooms with little or no fragrance (except for ‘sweet Lillian’ and ‘jewel’), which is important for families dealing with allergies. They also have an impressive colour range from white, salmon, deep red, peach, pink, yellow, orange and green, with many bicolor blooms.
There are also a few different forms including the elegant butterfly amaryllis (hippeastrum papilio) and the thin-petaled cybister types (hippeastrum cybister).
Some people start the planting process by soaking the dried roots before potting in lightly moistened indoor soil. Your container should be about seven inches deep and an inch wider than the bulb on each side, with unglazed clay or terra cotta being ideal for their breathing qualities and counterweight.
Make sure the top one third of the bulb protrudes after planting and water sparingly until it enacts growth. At this point you can liquid fertilize every 10 days, with the blooms showing up about 6-8 weeks after planting.
Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (firstname.lastname@example.org).