Monday 23 October 2017

In The Garden: Blooms that steal the show

Hippeastrum, formerly known as amaryllis, hails from South Americas
Hippeastrum, formerly known as amaryllis, hails from South Americas

Gerry Daly

Even if you don't know the name of the hippeastrum flower, there's a very good chance that you have seen it before. It is widely used as a cut flower in hotels and is often sold as a Christmas gift, its large flower carried on a thick stem that arises from a large bulb. It's sold in kit form in garden centres: bulb, pot and compost.

The large flowers are as much as 15cm across with six broad petals, flaring open, and trumpet-shaped. Usually, four to six of these large flowers are produced at the top of a stout stem that can be 50cm tall. The buds open in sequence, pushing out of a protective pouch. The sight of a plant in full flower, all trumpets open, is very impressive.

It has an exotic look and comes from tropical South America. Formerly called amaryllis, now called hippeastrum, this plant has been bred from a number of related species. The first crosses were made about 200 years ago and since then many new colours and flower forms have been bred.

The colour range is mostly shades of red, orange, dark maroon, pink and white. The red kinds are strong vibrant colours and the paler shades are quieter, more elegant. 'Red Lion' is a popular bright red and 'Rosetta' is soft pink. Some kinds are striped or edged with colour, such as the beautiful apple blossom, which is white, flushed pink.

To make such a big flower needs a big bulb and the bulb is usually the size of a grapefruit. When it is potted up and watered, it should get just enough water to keep the compost barely moist, or rotting of the roots can occur. After the flower stem has pushed up to full height and the flowers open, the leaves begin to grow.

As soon as the plant flowers, the bulb shrinks, using its stored reserves to make the flower stem and flower. The exhausted bulb will build up to flowering strength again, depending on how it is cared for. Just after flowering is the key time for feeding and watering to ensure flowers for the following year.

Place it in a bright sunny window, water to keep it nicely moist and give it liquid feed every two weeks, or even every week. The large leaves, when well fed, soon bulk up the bulb and a flower bud will develop inside. Usually by late summer or autumn, the bottom leaves begin to turn yellow.

Stop feeding and reduce watering, eventually withholding water altogether when the rest of the leaves yellow and finally wither. They can be removed and the bulb kept dry in its pot for a few weeks. To re-start the bulb in winter or spring, water heavily once and keep in a warm place.

Q: "Is it okay to feed my alder trees, fruit trees and shrubs with last year's potato compost? I don't need it for this year's vegetable beds but I don't want to throw it away." D Crowe, Monaghan

A: There is no problem using it, except that you might find a few small volunteer potatoes coming up, but these are easily pulled out. Spent compost will act as a mulch around young trees and shrubs.

Send your questions to gerrydaly@independent.ie. Questions can only be answered on this page.

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