Amaryllis, Flower Cult

About a year ago, I got an email from a flower company offering to send me a box of three amaryllis bulbs. I said yes, in part because my mom also grows and gives away amaryllis plants each winter, but mostly because I love flowers, even if I am probably not supposed to accept them or anything else for free. Then last fall I emailed my mom about it.

EZ: What do you like about giving amaryllis bulbs as gifts? I like that they’re almost ridiculously easy, and then somehow also never die. And randomly (or not so randomly) rebloom.

Elizabeth Fox: Amaryllis are like dessert, at least for me: they impress people, uplift them, and add happiness for less effort than people realize (like most desserts — or at least one can prepare them ahead of time). They don’t provide protein, but they delight the senses. It’s like easy-baking to give them as gifts, because instead of chemistry (the baking kind), the “magic” lies in the bulb. Buying great bulbs guarantees a spectacular show. I read about Colorblends and John Scheepers’ bulbs, and then found Van Engelen’s catalogue, which offers wholesale prices for Scheepers’ products (the catalogues have no pictures, but the website does).

I give them as Christmas presents in part because I don’t like giving things that people don’t want, and I assume that my friends (often female but not always) enjoy flowers; It’s also because I assume others need a lift in Jan.-Feb., the dead of winter, when most amaryllis bloom if I pot them in November. Bulbs have varied a lot; some “Christmas” amaryllis bloomed very late last year, in March or April, while others bloomed in my home in January. (Of course, I keep temperatures low.) The beauty of the blooms (with Scheepers or Van E., four blossoms appear on each of two stalks, sometimes a third) redeems winter.

Another reason I give them is the excitement of watching their growth; the stalks shoot up, and the buds thicken and burst dramatically. People say they can almost see the growth. That engages and satisfies people, of course.

I order a dozen or so bulbs and then buy pots from Home Depot. I use a bag of potting material, too, outside on the patio. This means that each bulb may cost $10 or less, with ceramic pots around $7, and a bag of soil a negligible amount (a good-sized one lasts a few years or for summer plants as well), so I have lovely presents for maybe $15-$17. I plant in November, usually, although I might have done so earlier, and I wait until Christmas or so to give them, depending on when I see people. My best friend gets one for Xmas and one for her birthday in February. This split works well when I have two different kinds, with one blooming sooner. I’ve tried to give you two kinds, too.

If you asked me about the types I prefer (hint, hint), I’d say that I started liking the “showier” blooms, the double blooms.

Haha. Which ones do you prefer!

Okay, I established that I like showy blooms, like “Dancing Queen,” “Nymph,” or “Aphrodite.”

One year when I gave one to a friend, she said, “I hope it’s not that vulgar red type.” (Or something like that.) In fact, I had a double white for her, but I do find the red ones lovely, especially if they are Red Pearl or something very deep, or mixed with a stripe, or other. Red might not be my favorite, but it’s certainly cheerful. I’ve found that miniatures are lovely, too, and that delicate colors bewitch me, but that I have a soft spot for almost any amaryllis.

Hence, they accumulate. At first, almost none of them would rebloom even though they might send out new foliage. (Doing so before sending a bud stalk is usually a bad sign.) In October, I take my collection inside, giving them time to hibernate (go into dormancy) before producing bud scapes. Having them rebloom thrills me; it doesn’t always happen. That reminds me to feed them and perhaps fertilize them — must re-check procedures.

Anyway, I may have 15–24 out on the patio (a few inside), and I’d love to have half of them re-bloom. I usually keep 2 or 3 of the dozen I prepare each year, and sometimes people return the empty (or full) pots to me.

Another advantage is that people look forward to having the amaryllis bloom; it isn’t “done” and over with by New Year’s, as so much of the frenzy is. Plants give me hope, and I hope they give it to others, too.

Do you want to know what I’m planning to order this year, or should I keep it a secret?

[Note: This exchange took place last fall, so these bulbs already arrived and grew.]

Of course I do. Also, do you have a favorite flower? (Amaryllis-related, or beyond?)

Here’s what my “wheelbarrow” contains so far (about double what I expect to order, but I haven’t decided completely):

Should I mention that I once said, “If I had my own private religion, it would involve flowers”? I also think I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (I tend to get depressed or at least down in winter), so flowers help a lot, especially when the patio is blanketed in snow and I need to shovel. The blooms against a backdrop of snow, plus candles on the tables, make winter gorgeous. I agree that we need beauty; it feeds the soul. Music, too, of course.

These are great. I like the last one, the Nymph, best, I think. And the religion thing — I’m in. A friend of mine has been saying that she’s currently primed to join a cult, so maybe now’s the time?? We can start it, the three of us.

(I also want to include a photo I took last spring of one of my amaryllises after the flowers had all died and I’d de-headed them. I don’t know, but it made me laugh. “That plant sucks” — -Beloved former Hairpin/Awl publisher David Cho.)

But also, what could this flower religion involve?

For rituals, I’ve enjoyed freezing roses in milk cartons as cases for my aquavit at Summer solstice parties; have you seen the ice containers I’ve made? Strip away the cartons, wrap napkins around the ice that surrounds the bottles, and you have a lovely container. Can you picture it?

Just having flowers, or choosing them, can be a ritual. When I was depressed in the past, I gave myself a budget of $5 to find something I liked at Hallie’s Flower Garden, and deciding on what I liked exercised a part of me that seemed to be submerged or dead — the pleasure part, or self-pleasing part. Re-igniting or resurrecting that did me good. Now I buy things from time to time at Trader Joe’s or Hallie’s for the same reason, but sometimes at farmers’ markets, or just because I love flowers, not because I’m depressed.

Let me think some more. I like having flowers in my bedroom. When friends lose family members, I give white orchid plants; my friend Rita did this for me when my mother died, and it helped a huge amount.

Here’s a ritual: I planted Thalia narcissus (daffodils) in Maine to remember (really commemorate) my mother, who loved them and helped me plant them and some crocuses here in Cambridge. Maybe snowdrops, as well, and perhaps yellow daffs. At one point I planted daffs, crocuses, and tulips in Maine as a way to ask Nature/God to let your grandmother and granddad live another year … it worked! Someone once told me that she planted a rose bush at each place she lived to commemorate her mother. Planting the amaryllis is a gesture of faith in nature for me, and I find it easier to believe in Mother Nature than in some paternal spirit. So all planting is a gesture of faith.

Also, look at the papilio, the cybister, and the trumpet on the lower line here.

Those are so pretty. Thank you, Mom.