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Posted May 15, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Bloomin' time: Amaryllis has its roots in spring, despite its holiday reputation

Rhonda Stevenson stands by a blooming Minerva amaryllis
Rhonda Stevenson, owner of Country Gardens in Toms Brook, stands by a blooming Minerva amaryllis in her greenhouse. Rich Cooley/Daily

A Lady Jane amaryllis
A Lady Jane amaryllis has a double bloom, offering more than the usual six petals found in other amaryllis plants. Rich Cooley/Daily

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By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

TOMS BROOK -- With names like Merry Christmas, Wedding Dance and Miracle, amaryllis plants are as festive as they sound. They have become a popular treat to buy and enjoy at the holidays, but these plants can actually be appreciated year-round. You can grow them at home, and, in fact, they are in full natural bloom right now, in the heart of May.

"There's almost a mindset that these are just for Christmas, and that's not true," says Rhonda Stevenson, owner of Country Gardens on Country Brook Road in Toms Brook. She says the extravagant blooms gained their reputation as an early winter flower because that is the time of year when they bloom after being imported to the U.S. from Africa. Grown locally, however, they reach maturity in the spring and will continue to bloom every year if kept healthy, Stevenson says.

At Country Gardens, flowers clearly rule the greenhouse, stretching high into the air or cascading down from the ceiling; even the pots cannot hold some of them, like the edible nasturtiums that grow from the floor, illuminating a tiny spot with their bright orange-colored petals and round speckled leaves that hint at their peppery taste.

Their beauty, however, pales in comparison to the allure of the amaryllis, which Stevenson says can sport single blooms with six pedals, or double blooms that offer layers of pedals in each flower.

Amaryllis is also known as belladonna lily or "naked ladies." It's a Greek word, meaning "to sparkle."

What do you call more than one amaryllis?

"We just call 'em our babies," Stevenson says, pointing out the various colors the flowers wear, from white to deep red and every shade in between. "We have bad boys and girls and young ladies," she says.

Having raised amaryllis for 10 years, Stevenson says she became interested partly because they are easier to grow than some other flowers, but also because she wanted to try something unique.

"I don't think I could do a greenhouse with all geraniums or impatiens," says Stevenson, who does in fact have six greenhouses containing various types of plants, from herbs to trees.

She is attracted by the interesting, the difficult and the beautiful. She enjoys finding out if she can raise a plant under different conditions than it is accustomed to, she says -- "to push it to a colder limit."

Her interest in horticulture was instilled at a young age.

"I've been gardening just basically all my life," she says, though perhaps at first she misunderstood the concept of growing plants, when gardening with her grandmother. "I was going behind her just pulling the tomato plants out," she says, laughing at the memory. She gained a respect for the hobby, though, now fondly recalling how zinnias, gladiolas and dahlias were always in abundance in her grandmother's yard and were used for cut flowers to adorn the family's home.

Now Stevenson too has a yard full of flowers and various other plants.

On Saturdays year-round her customers find her at farmers markets in Falls Church, Fairfax and McLean.

The greenhouses are also open May through November, seven days a week, she says.

"We're just not a retailer or a garden center -- we actually grow 80 percent of our stuff," she says.

She hopes that the striking beauty of the amaryllis as well as its strong vitality will attract gardeners to consider growing the plant at home.

Blooms last about a month, she says, and many bulbs will fit easily in a single pot together.

"They like to be crowded -- this is getting a little too crowded," she says of one amaryllis of hers that has seven stems in a single pot, all generated from one bulb.

Keep the amaryllis inside, she says, to replicate its natural African habitat.

"They'll intermittently shoot up all summer," she says, and they become dormant in the fall and will not bloom again until spring. She recommends cutting off the stems at their base as they turn yellow and die but otherwise leaving the bulbs in their pots to their own devices. She also does not store the plants in the dark, stressing that the practice is just an old wives' tale.

A cool place of about 40-50 degrees for three months during the winter is all the plants require.

"So they're very easy to do," she says. "To me they're a lot easier than orchids," a plant which also blooms once a year but is more expensive and more difficult to keep.

A good quality amaryllis bulb costs $15 to $20, she says, and customers to Country Gardens will have their pick of color and shape.

"Their natural bloom time is right now; their biggest flush is right now," she says.

Country Gardens, at 1043 Country Brook Road in Toms Brook, is open May-November, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and noon-4 p.m. on Sundays. Call 436-3746 for more information.

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