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Amaryllis sparkles during holiday season

A bright amaryllis is a cheery addition to holiday decor. (Photo: Debbie Arrington)

Big bulb is easy to grow, easy to love

Amaryllis are the winter star of indoor bulbs. New hybrids boast blooms that are more than 8 inches across on strong 2-foot stems. With a succession of buds, these gigantic flowers last weeks in a sunny window.

And the large bulbs can rebloom for years to come outdoors, transplanted into the garden. They're hardy in USDA Zone 9, which includes Sacramento.

These bulbs, native to Mexico and Central America, have been winter favorites for generations, but their name can be confusing. What we popularly call amaryllis aren't actually Amaryllis, the genus that includes Naked Ladies (Amaryllis belladonna, a South African native). About two centuries ago, botanists split these hollow-stem varieties off into a separate genus, Hippeastrum (which mean's horseman's star). About 90 species are part of this genus with hundreds of hybrids available on the market.

In the Victorian language of flowers, amaryllis symbolize strength and determination. They're also associated with beauty, love and hard-won success. In Greek, amaryllis means "to sparkle."
And yes, the name Amaryllis comes from Greek mythology.

A maiden named Amaryllis fell in love with a flower-crazy shepherd, Alteo. Amaryllis asked the Oracle of Delphi for help in winning his heart. On the oracle's advice, Amaryllis stood outside Alteo's house for 30 nights, each night piercing her heart with a golden arrow. On the 31st night, a red flower sprouted from her blood - and won her Alteos affection.

That legend inspired the meaning behind the flowers.

Amaryllis bulbs are easy to love; no arrows necessary. Choose a firm bulb and a snug pot, only an inch or two larger than the bulb. Use a fast-draining mix of perlite and peat moss; add 1 tablespoon bone meal. Plant the bulb shallow, so about half of it sits above the soil line. Place the bulb in a sunny window, water once, then wait.

As the flower shoot starts to appear, water once or twice a week, turning the pot a quarter turn every few days to encourage the stem to grow straight. Otherwise, it will grow towards the light.

In spring after the blooms are spent, the bulb will push out strappy green leaves. Transplant the bulb into a protected spot with partial or full shade, such as on the north or east side of the house. Once established, the bulb will rebloom, but in May or June -- not December.

Amaryllis bulbs are now available at local nurseries such as The Plant Foundry and Green Acres. Also, check out the selection at amaryllis specialist White Flower Farm ( ), which offers more than 70 varieties.

The one downside: Amaryllis contains a toxin that is poisonous to cats. Keep away from curious felines. Fortunately, this plant tastes bad, so cats rarely ingest too much.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Dec. 3:

Make the most of gaps between raindrops. This is a busy month!

* Windy conditions brought down a lot of leaves. Make sure to rake them away from storm drains.

* Use those leaves as mulch around frost-tender shrubs and new transplants.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they're dormant.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.

* Plant one last round of spring bulbs including daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, anemones and scillas. Get those tulips out of the refrigerator and into the ground.

* This is also a good time to seed wildflowers such as California poppies.

* Plant such spring bloomers as sweet pea, sweet alyssum and bachelor buttons.

* Late fall is the best time to plant most trees and shrubs. This gives them plenty of time for root development before spring growth. They also benefit from fall and winter rains.

* Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli also can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.

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