Holiday Planting: Amaryllis, Paper White & Christmas Cactus

Attention indoor gardeners. It’s planting time.

I’m not going to talk about herbs or house plants. I’m talking those three things that make the holiday season bright: paperwhites, amaryllis and Christmas cactus.

You are probably not trying to revive last year’s poinsettia, because the new plants are so cheap. But if you are, you are throwing black-out cloth over your plants for 14 to 15 hours every night, or hauling them into a dark room, or a back closet. It’s as much work as tending a flock of chickens. You will know if you have succeeded after Thanksgiving, when you see if the bracts are red. Good luck.

Christmas cactus Holiday planting

As for your Christmas cactus: if you have one, it’s been in the family for years, right? So you know the drill by now.

Shove it away for eight days for the required dark period: again, 14 hours. If you live in planting zone 5b as I do, the sun rises these days at 7 am EDT and sets at 6 pm, so that’s 12 hours of dark. Pull shades for another hour or two, keep the temperature near 60 (easy with my landlord) and don’t turn on any lights where the Christmas cactus lives. You are home free.

Of course it’s not really a Christmas cactus. Technically it’s a Thanksgiving cactus, so don’t blame it if it blooms early. There are also Easter cacti.

Here is a hint. Temperatures between 55 and 60 degrees will give you an even darker shade of pink or red. (My landlord would be happy to oblige.) And don’t ever give a Christmas cactus too much light or too much water. It comes from the mountains along the coast of Brazil, where it flowers in May, to the delight of hummingbirds.

Now, on to amaryllis and paperwhites.

Paperwhites in a vase Holiday planting

Paperwhites are easy. Of all the narcissus, they are the rare ones that don’t need a cold, dormant period. Lucky us! That means we can force them in the winter. And they grow fast.

All you need is a shallow bowl, some marbles, rocks, soil. Add bulbs and water and in a few weeks you’ve got sweet-smelling flowers. White Flower Farm can be counted on to make it easy and expensive. $135, for its Ariel Winter Solace kit, above, which includes 12 bulbs (enough to fill the vase twice), four red winterberry stems, the vase, marble rocks and instructions. The kit will ship in early December and the bulbs will bloom by the end of December. Replace those bulbs, and you will have another centerpiece for later in the year. And yes, they have a wonderful scent.

Those with a budget, or with a do-it-yourself spirit can order paperwhite bulbs online. A little advice. Ziva, grown in Israel, is the most popular variety, and has a strong, somewhat spicy scent. It is widely available.

The Erlicheer Double Paperwhites

The Erlicheer Double Paperwhites, with a slight yellow cast, have a delicate scent. Eden Brothers sells a bag of 10 for $18.99.

Israel blooms in just three weeks, with yellow petals and a yellow cup (so hardly a paperwhite)! But it’s a tall one, with a 16 to 20 inch stem.

And finally, Nir, a fragrant and unusual paperwhite. Put these on the table and your dinner guests won’t ask for dessert. They have more flowers, more stems, better fragrance than the standard paperwhites. A bag of 10 is only $12.95 from the folks at Easy to Grow Bulbs. (A 20-pack is $23.95 — just thought we’d tell you.) Stick the bulbs in bowl filled with rocks water, and 30 to 45 days later, a bowl of sweet-smelling flowers.

Finally amaryllis. It’s almost disappointing to get to them, because they have no scent, and they take so long. I just got my bulbs out of hiding. They were in a dark place for the summer, resting, after I let the green leaves grow for some months after the flowers were finished. I wanted the leaves to feed the bulbs.

I guess they did.

Amaryllis bulbs

My amaryllis bulbs were plump and healthy when I took them out. At first I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Should I cut off the roots and make them grow new ones? Should I cut down the tops?

Then I squeezed the tops and looked inside, and there were the new flower shafts, ready to make their appearance. And it’s a good thing I didn’t cut those roots off. These babies were ready to go.

When you buy bulbs online, they come the way tulip bulbs do.

But when you harvest your own bulbs, you have ready-made plants. Instead of waiting two or more months to see flowers, I’m guessing I’ll have flowers in a month or six weeks.

I may have amaryllis for Thanksgiving. Oops. Next year I’ll know better and start later. It isn’t often I do anything too early!

Potting them up wasn’t hard. I’d kept the basket they arrived in last year. I threw some dirt into the basket, seated the bulbs well and gave the bulbs a good drink. I saw something like this very soon.

A single amaryllis bulb

Of course it is easy to order amaryllis online. A single bulb in a dizzying range of colors and patterns is available for $31 for a single bulb to $103 for a set of three in a basket.

And a florist would be happy to deliver an amaryllis already in bloom to your house or apartment in time for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Beautiful amaryllis in bloom

But if you are a gardener at heart the way I am there is something satisfying about getting the plant to come back. It is a fight again entropy, a belief in renewal and also, of course, a way of being very very cheap.

Linda Lee is a former editor at The New York Times. She was the deputy editor of The House & Home section, where among other things she edited the garden column. She was a frequent contributor to the Sunday Style section.