We're talking today about planting amaryllis for gifts during the upcoming holiday season, but don't panic: despite the fact that Christmas advertisements are already clogging the airways, you still have time to enjoy a few weeks of sanity, including Thanksgiving, before switching into high gear. I'm jumping on this topic because this morning I retrieved last year's amaryllis from the root cellar and, voila! There was the promised first leaf poking its way up from the neck of the bulb.

For the first time in many years I'd actually done all the right things to keep the plant over. I'd cut the flower stalks when the blooms were gone, then hidden the plant, with its strappy leaves, away among other houseplants that live in a sunny southeast-facing window. There the amaryllis received water all winter, along with a tad of liquid fertilizer. This post-bloom treatment encourages leaf production that helps the bulb bulk up for another year of flowers. For the summer, I moved the pot to a corner of the kitchen garden, where it sat all summer. In early fall, I brought it inside, cut back the leaves, which wasn't necessary, as they die back on their own, and placed the bulb in the root cellar for eight weeks of forced dormancy.

At this point I should have just let the pot sit in a warm place for a while to encourage leaves to emerge at the same time the flower stalk is developing, although a warm treatment is not needed for floral development. I would have waited to repot the bulb in fresh soil, but I noticed a lot of root tips poking up around my bulb so I turned it out of its confining pot and, sure enough, the amaryllis was completely potbound; so I found a larger pot and repotted immediately. With a bit of watering and a sunny location, I should have blooms before Christmas.

An amaryllis is the perfect hostess or holiday gift. You can choose a huge top-quality bulb, wrap it in tissue paper and give it to any gardener on your list and they'll know what to do with it. Or you can pot them up to give to anyone, even those with a notoriously black thumb. All you need is a bulb, some potting soil and a flowerpot with a drainage hole and saucer. The pot can be of the simple terra cotta variety, or you can select a glazed one for added elegance, but either way, the pot should be heavy enough to support the tall, top-heavy plant when it blooms. The pot should be just slightly larger than the bulb itself, as the bulb's thick fleshy roots don't require much growing room. For planting one good-sized bulb, choose a pot six inches deep with a six- to seven-inch diameter. If you want to make your gift plant even more spectacular, plant two or three bulbs in one container, using a pot six to eight inches deep with a nine- to 11-inch diameter.



Plant the bulb pointed-end-up, packing the soil gently around the bulb so approximately one-third of it remains above the soil line. Then place the pot in a sunny location and water sparingly until you see about two inches of new growth. From then on, water regularly. As the plant grows, turn the pot periodically to encourage the stalk to grow straight. Within five to eight weeks, you should have a plant in full bloom or nearly there, ready for giving or enjoying yourself.

You can also grow amaryllis in stones and water, in much the same way you would grow paperwhites. Fill a clear glass vase — one tall enough to provide support for your plant's stalks as it grows — with river stones or pebbles to a depth of about four inches. You can often find good-looking glass containers at local thrift shops. Adding some aquarium charcoal to the pebbles will also help keep the water fresh. With scissors, trim off any roots on the bulb that are brown and dry, because they will decompose in water over time, but leave any roots that are whitish and fleshy. Place the bulb, roots down, on top of the stones, then put additional stones around the bulb, leaving the top third of it exposed. Add water until the level reaches about an inch below the base of the bulb but no higher; if the base of the bulb sits in water, it will rot. Then set the container in a sunny window and check the water level daily, adding water as needed to keep the level below the base of the bulb. As with a plant growing in soil, rotating the container frequently will prevent the flower stalks from leaning toward the light.

Amaryllis grown in water may not perform well in subsequent years, but it's worth giving it a try. Just follow the same instructions for rebuilding the strength of the bulb over winter and summer, then pull the bulb out and let it dry in a cool, dark place for six to eight weeks before repotting.