Hippeastrum: Somewhere Over The Rainbow

If ever there was a plant perfectly suited to the sets of the Wizard of Oz, it’s Hippeastrum. These flamboyant flowers are dead easy to grow and  Australia is fortunate to have the likes of Mick Maguire, a dedicated hybridist and grower.

Hippeastrum is a genus of perennial clumping bulbs. Many species, and all hybrids, can survive neglect for years provided they are grown in full sun or at the edge of dappled shade with good drainage and not much  competition from surrounding vegetation.

My Great Aunt Vera Coleby was a devotee and collector and I grew up calling them Amaryllis. The genus Amaryllis has been split from Hippeastrum, leaving the latter genus with around 90 species from tropical and subtropical America.

Auntie had a conservatory built, which she heated during winter, at her home in Colchester (England, originally my Great Grandfather’s home and market garden where he grew Amaryllis belladonna, from South Africa as a cut flower). She could sit in her conservatory or look out from the kitchen or parlour to enjoy her tender plants. Auntie grew  tomato, cucumber, melon and Hippeastrum to perfection. It was easy picking a Christmas present for Auntie: check the autumn Spalding bulb catalogue (they still call them Amaryllis) and see what new Hippeastrum’s they had on offer!

In Australia, Hippeastrum (Hippeastrum x hybridum) can be grown outside if they can be protected from heavy frost. Dig the soil to 30cm deep, work some compost into the surface, then plant so that the neck of the bulb is above the surface of the soil. Apply a 3-5cm deep layer of organic mulch, like chopped sugarcane, or mulch from tree and shrub prunings.

Mick Maguire’s Hippeastrum Farm at Woombye, in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, is Australia’s primary source of Australian-bred bulbs. There’s a handful of smaller Hippeastrum growers and retailers in southern Australia, but most are concentrated in SE Qld, including:
hippeastrum.com.au;
Mistydowns;
Rainbow Daylilies & Irises;

The majority of bulbs sold in this country have been imported by companies like Tesselaars,  Garden Express and Broersen’s (trading as Lake Nurseries) from places like South Africa where labour is cheaper.

Plant them in a spot that faces north east, water them in and sit back and watch the show,” Mick says, “What’s not to love? They’re not fussy about soil type as long as it drains well. If they’re planted with their neck out of the ground, you can’t fail”.

Once established, Hippeastrum survive on natural rainfall. Just watch out for Amaryllis caterpillar (Spodoptera picta), which eat flowers, leaves and bulbs. Promptly hand pick or spray plants with Dipel or Success or pyrethrum. If mealybug attack, thoroughly spray the crown with pyrethrum.

Mick’s obsession for Hippeastrum began when he and his wife, Nellie, moved from Grafton (NSW) to Woombye, “We walked into a tropical bulb nursery and I almost dropped dead. They were beautiful”.

“It’s like trying breed a champion thoroughbred horse,” Mick says, “You never get good results crossing a champion with a champion, but crossing a champion with an okay horse gives results.”

Although Mick admits to mistakes when starting out, he’s honed his technique through many years of experience. He carefully crosses selected cultivars with desirable characteristics, always hoping for that perfect combination.

You might take a double that’s pure white and cross it with a single crimson, hoping for a pink double,” he says. “The thing we look for mostly is thicker petals, because the blooms last longer.”

When Mick started, many Hippeastrum cultivars were red or white variants and few were pink or double-flowered. His work has greatly expanded their range. Wikipedia guesstimates the number of cultivars to be around 600, but Mick’s lifetime achievement is a retail bulb farm where over 400 distinctive Hippeastrum cultivars have been developed, including many pinks, oranges and doubles over the past 37 years. Several shade houses and seventy one beds, each containing hundreds of plants, combine to create a special Queensland cultural landscape.

“It always exciting when a new cross flowers for the first time,” says Mick, “It’s what I live for.”

Please note quarantine restrictions may prevent posting Hippeastrum bulbs to Tasmania and Western Australia.

Jerry Coleby-Williams
11th October 2014