Amaryllis bulbs make our Olga ogle

#434 in a series of true experiences in real estate
July 2003, Hills Newspapers

Anet’s mom, whose name is Olga, is a lively woman of eighty-some years who lives in Atlanta and visits us each year at Christmas.

We like finding gifts for Olga that she likes, and one that we give her every Christmas is a flower bulb, an amaryllis.

Amaryllis bulbs are surefire show-stoppers. Plant a bulb in a pot, water it, and in a short time, a thick stalk appears. It grows so fast, it’s like Jack’s beanstalk.

Olga had never even heard of amaryllis when we gave her the first bulb. But she enjoys growing plants and flowers, so as soon as she got home, she potted up the bulb, setting it near a window where it began to grow right away. A fat stalk leaped from the soil, higher and higher, opening then a huge flower of hot tomato red.

Olga provided us phone reports on the bulb’s progress. And because she wasn’t sure we truly understood the impact, she sent photos. Wow! It was hard to see anything in the pictures beyond that great plant in Olga’s living room.

When the flower had faded, she wanted to know what to do. Unearth the bulb and save it? Throw it out? We looked up advice on the subject and passed it along: Allow the leaves to die back naturally, stop watering, place the pot to rest for several months.

Olga boxed the pot and put it in her basement. She retrieved it in the fall, moved it back inside and added water. Off it went again.

“It’s got two stalks,” Olga said soon after. “Two!”

More photos were sent, and then it was Christmas time again. We’d found for Olga another amaryllis, a different color than before. She potted it and set it next to the first reporting then on both, their progress, their sturdiness, and not long later, their glory.

At Olga’s house these days, either in the living room or in the basement, depending on the time of year, there are a dozen amaryllis. All have red, pink or coral flowers so I was excited to find offered in a catalog last year a real rarity, a pale yellow amaryllis. But after weeks of tense wait, I heard from the supplier. There would be no yellow stock this year.

Fortunately, I had on hand the catalog from John Scheepers, a Connecticut bulb company. Full of luscious color plates, including many of amaryllis, I order bulbs for myself from this catalog every year. Anet and I studied the pictures together.

It was a hard choice but finally we agreed to order a two-color amaryllis named Picotee. The larger part of the flower is crisp white; only the edges of the petals are outlined in deep red.

The cost: $7.75 for a bulb or, for a dollar more, a gift box of bulb, pot and soil. What a deal! Fabulous anticipation for Olga as the bulb explodes with life, then a long-lasting bloom — loud, big — all for a small price.

Picotee turned out to be a great choice. Among her others, Picotee is Olga’s favorite. We recently learned that Picotee is also a favorite of photographer Starr Ockenga. I read about Ockenga’s new book “Amaryllis” (Clarkson Potter, $20) and immediately ordered it shipped directly to Olga.

Now there was a gift hit! Olga said we could have waited till Christmas but she was sure glad we hadn’t. The package had arrived at her door during breakfast. She opened it, saw what it was, and plunged in. Not ten minutes later she was on the phone to us excited, exclaiming. Did we know that there are all sorts of amaryllis?

“Well, there are. Ones I’ve never dreamed of.” Why, she said, she wasn’t going to be able to do any of the things she’d planned for that day because she had to read the book. “And the photos! Absolutely gorgeous!”

“Best of all,” Olga ran on, “I found out that I’ve got a seed pod. A pod from Picotee – with seeds inside. I didn’t know what it was, but the book says that I can plant the seeds. I do hope that it’s not too late. I’ve got to plant them today.”

As she read further, Olga gave more information. “The author loves Picotee, too,” Olga told us. “That’s what she wrote. This isn’t a storybook though. It’s a reference, instructions on how to grow and take care of amaryllis. It tells how to divide bulbs — did you know they can be divided?”

“The author moved to Connecticut and started ordering amaryllis. She grows 400 plants. She’s got 90 varieties. There are plants all over her house and she’s got a greenhouse. There are so many that she had to get someone to help her do the watering.”

On that first day, Olga had put down the book long enough to rush out to buy sterile potting soil and return home to plant the seeds. “You’ve got to do it right,” she told us. “Right heat, soil, water. The seeds can’t be too old. I hope mine are still good.

“It will take two weeks to find out if the seeds will grow. And then, if it works, it takes two years to get a bulb.”

I picture her visiting the seed pot in the basement anxious to see a sign of life. Maybe there’s a greenhouse in Olga’s future. Maybe she’ll clear the dining room, protect the sideboard from stray water. Buy bottom heaters, join the amaryllis society, learn hybridizing. Become known for her named amaryllis introductions.

Olga brings me back. “I guess I’ll have to stick around another two years,” she says. “Because I’d hate to be successful and not be here to see it.”

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