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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Amaryllis: Those Lovely Naked Ladies

This hybrid amaryllis blooms in a gloriously gaudy shade of pink.

This hybrid amaryllis blooms in a gloriously gaudy shade of pink.

Love ’em and leave ’em.

That’s about all there is to successfully growing naked ladies in the garden.

Aside from the shock value of their name, the sight of the South African bulbs is downright inspiring. Each plump bulb sends up several bare, rubbery-looking stems about 18 inches tall. On top blooms a cluster of spectacular pink trumpet flowers. There’s nary a leaf in sight — giving rise to the common name, naked lady.

Equally amazing is that the bulbs require next to no care, blooming beautifully everywhere from carefully tended gardens to vacant lots, and subsisting entirely on winter rains.

Indeed, about the only way to kill your naked ladies is with kindness, by watering during summer, applying fertilizer or burying them in mulch.

By Way of Background

These blushing beauties rise, naked from the earth, in a more demure shade of pink.

These blushing beauties rise, naked from the earth, in a more demure shade of pink.

The genus Amaryllis contains only two species: our naked lady or belladonna lily, Amaryllis belladonna; and the more recently discovered, and still very obscure, Amaryllis paradisicola. Both species hail from rocky areas in the western part of the Cape of South Africa, where the Mediterranean cycle of warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters matches our climate on the Central Coast.

But in one of those confusing moments where common names and botanic names don’t sync up, there are other, similar bulbs that go by the common name of amaryllis. These imposters actually belong to the genus Hippeastrum. They bear giant red, pink or white trumpet-shaped flowers at Christmas, rather than in summer. They’re native to South America, rather than South Africa. And they have hollow flower stalks, rather than solid flower stalks.

Further muddling the issue is that during the slave trade that started in the 1500s, seafarers and merchants rounding the Cape of South Africa dug up naked lady bulbs and distributed them across Europe and on sugar cane plantations in Brazil and other parts of South America. The true amaryllis bulbs have naturalized in South America so well over the past 500 years that it appears that they’re native there, too.

But in truth, the “real” amaryllis are native only to the Cape. And fortunately for us, the climate of their origin matches ours so completely that they’re a no-brainer on the Central Coast. Even better — while their native sites are rocky, they’ll do just fine in heavy clay soil, provided they’re not watered. They absolutely detest summer irrigation and will shrivel up and die if they’re anywhere near a sprinkler that runs on a regular basis.

Patience, Patience

Flamethrower, anyone?

Flamethrower, anyone?

Probably the most finicky aspect of growing naked ladies is the time that it takes for them to bloom for the first time.

Their natural cycle begins in winter, when they send up floppy clumps of strappy, green leaves that look somewhat like small agapanthus. By late spring or early summer, the leaves go brown, dry up and disappear.

In August, the show begins, seemingly overnight. Stout, brownish-purplish stems rise rapidly out of the earth. On top are big, brown tips with silhouettes like gas flames. Before you know it, those brown tips have split open, each firing up a bloom of three to 10 pink trumpets flaring out from the center.

In my garden, full-size bulbs have waited two years before producing their first flower stalks. That’s pretty typical. Even if you divide and transplant naked ladies that have been blooming in your garden for years, they may sulk for a year or two before they regain their bearings and start producing new, luscious blooms.

From seed, naked ladies require even more patience. They may sit quietly in the earth for three to six years before growing large enough to bear foliage and bloom.

Planting Time

Nothing short of exquisite.

Nothing short of exquisite.

The window of opportunity for planting — or dividing an existing patch — is late summer to early fall, when the bulbs are dormant. Interestingly enough, naked ladies are considered dormant even when they’re blooming: their dormancy is keyed to the leaves having shriveled up, rather than any flowering going on.

Full-size bulbs are the size of a tangerine or larger. Plant them up to their papery necks. This means about two-thirds of the bulb goes in the ground and a third stays up. Too deep, and they may rot. Or you may forget about them and accidentally dig them up or plant something else over top of them. You can mulch around the bulbs, but don’t cover their necks.

Once your amaryllis are up and growing, don’t worry about dividing them. Leave them alone, and they’ll continue to expand, flourish and bloom for decades.

If you do harvest any of the seeds, plant them barely beneath the surface of the soil, ignore them, and you’ll have a fun surprise several years from now.

Unlike some bulbs, naked ladies are not as content in containers.

However, if you’re squeezed for space or might move in the next year or two, plant one bulb per 6-inch or 8-inch pot, with the neck exposed. When your naked ladies are up and blooming, bring them out front and center. They can while away their down-time behind your garage or tucked in a corner. Make sure they receive at least half a day of sun, wherever they are.

Seeds of Wisdom

South African bulb expert Dick Doutt spent years hybridizing his beloved amaryllis, in search of a perfect circle. This is one of his beautiful results.

South African bulb expert Dick Doutt spent years hybridizing his beloved amaryllis, in search of a perfect circle. This beautiful spiral, with the top flowers still to open, is one of his creations.

The flaring, trumpet flowers of naked ladies usually form a quarter-circle and tend to face toward the sun.

Hybridizers, however, have been striving to create flower clusters that radiate from the stem in a full circle.

Renowned Southern African bulb expert Dick Doutt excelled in those efforts, and shared a number of his hybrids with me before he died in 2011. All of the amaryllis pictured here are results of his work.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

13 responses to “Amaryllis: Those Lovely Naked Ladies
  1. Joan, this post was very timely, as Jerry and I have been waiting for our beautiful pink ladies to appear this year! One set did, but the others aren’t yet out. I wasn’t aware they should not be watered, so this was news I needed! Thanks!

  2. Joan, this is such helpful information~ I’ve only ever grown amaryllis indoors…in pots. Your piece is so inspiring that I might just start growing the hardiest ones outdoors (maybe also in pots)!

    • Hi Debra,

      Your inclination to grow them in pots is a good one, as they do like dry summers. In rainy Seattle, they might suffer if you plant them in the ground.

      Please let me know how it goes!

  3. Hi Joan,
    is there any chance to find bulbs or seeds of the improved varieties by D. Doutt for sale somewhere? Here in Italy A. belladonna thrives wonderfully, but I’ve never come across such beauty as the one in your last photo… it would be a dream to see it flower here!

    • Hi Carlo,
      I’m sorry, but I don’t know what to suggest, other than to scour the internet. Dick closed his mail-order nursery, BioQuest International, at least 10-15 years ago. I just did a quick google search and saw someone had posted a photo of one of Dick’s amaryllis called MBQ 01 on the Pacific Bulb Society’s website. The flowers and shape are remarkably similar to mine. But the person who posted said he’d gotten it from BioQuest in the early 1990s.

      • thanks Joan, I’ve already tried but I will give it another go, there’s a French nursery which might have something similar

  4. I am currently in a old family home but will be moving within the next year. I have several clumps of naked ladies throughout the yard. I would like to pot them so I can take them in the move. What type of soil would you suggest putting in the pots? Would it be best just to take some from the yard where they are growing now?

    • Hi Steven,

      It would be best to use a fast-draining mix, such as a cactus and succulent mix, which you should be able to find in bags at any nursery. The risk with using existing soil from your garden is that while it’s obviously just fine for your amaryllis while they’re living in the ground, it may be too heavy and not provide sufficient drainage in a pot. That may sound strange, but it’s true.

      Good luck!

  5. Joan, For several years we had a vendor selling D. Doutt hybrid bulbs at the S.B. County Horticultural Society Plant Sale. (Mrs. Doutt sold off many of her remaining hybrid bulbs at our sale shortly after Dick died). I have a few ranging from scarlet to white in my small garden. Seeds are rarely available but I can check with our members who may have these unusual color amaryllis blooming in their gardens and perhaps we can get seeds from them.

    • Thanks, Carol. Aren’t the seeds within the jelly bean-like sacs? Do you know whether there would be any issue with trying to mail those to Carlo in Italy? Would the seeds have to be extracted first? And would the seeds still germinate if they weren’t planted until later on?

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