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Cheap thrills: Plant amaryllis and caladium for drama in your garden

White Wonder is one of Cindy’s favorite new caladium varieties.
White Wonder is one of Cindy’s favorite new caladium varieties.
Published Jan. 16, 2015

A year ago, I found Dutch iris bulbs on clearance at Lowe's. I'd never heard of them, but they had me at the picture on the bag — and the price.

They sprouted quickly, grew for a month, then suddenly keeled over. Eventually, I planted angelonias over their forgotten little graves.

A few weeks ago, I spied tiny sprouts among the haggard angelonias. Weeds? I was about to start plucking when I noticed a familiar pattern to their placement and remembered — the Dutch irises!

I love surprises, and bulbs are a veritable Mary Poppins carpet bag from which wonders can emerge for generations. Planting them is like digging for buried treasure in reverse. While most of us Florida gardeners can't replicate the vistas of northern bulbs like tulips and daffodils, we have plenty of alternatives. And they don't have to be dug up every year and stuck in a freezer, like the bulbs suited for colder climes.

Plus, many deliver as good as — or better — color and drama.

Here are two worth trying.

Amaryllis

"My wife got the flowers and I got the obsession." Bill Warren.

Bill caught the bug nearly 40 years ago.

"I started growing amaryllis for my wife. I wanted her to have a pretty flower to enjoy," says the Ocala gardener, who sells them at plant fairs around the state to finance his obsession. "She used to tell me how they made her feel good when she came home at the end of a bad day at work. She said it was like seeing lots of smiling faces."

Amaryllis, Hippeastrum, bloom in spring for several weeks. Stalks (scapes) pop up quickly and explode with dramatic, trumpet-shaped flowers. They're low-maintenace, multiply readily, and reappear year after year. Scores of cultivars offer a tremendous variety of petal colors and patterns.

"The buds can open at the same time or one at a time and what they look like depends on the conditions in your yard," Bill says. "They do what they want to do; that's part of the surprise."

Grow in sun or light shade, in the ground or in containers, and you can plant them year-round — except during a freeze.

Bill shares these tips:

• Plant so that the widest part of the bulb is even with the soil line. In the ground, place a tile or shell under the bulb to keep it from sinking as the soil expands and contracts. If the bulb's neck gets buried, it won't bloom.

• Bring potted amaryllis inside when the temperature dips toward freezing. In the summer, protect pots from excessive radiant heat on paved surfaces. (Amaryllis in pots are more vulnerable to heat and cold than those in the ground.)

Caladiums

"Caladiums . . . super easy and they love us back." Cindy "Meems" Glover.

You'll find no bulb more forgiving or rewarding than caladiums, says super fan Meems. They'll even straighten themselves out if you plant them upside-down!

"They add incredible color and dimension. In terms of impact for your dollar, you can get 10 gorgeous plants all summer for 50 cents or $1 — and they'll be back next year," she says.

Meems, a master gardener and author of the popular blog Hoe and Shovel, has hundreds of caladiums in her Lutz garden and she plants hundreds more every year. Their brightly colored foliage ranges from white to deepest crimson. Some varieties sport multiple colors, freckles or stripes. They may have dainty to mammoth heart-, ribbon- or lance-shaped leaves. Most varieties love shade but plenty thrive in full sun.

Plant your bulbs from May to August in Tampa Bay. Meems plants in June, when the rainy season starts, because they don't like to dry out. And who wants to water?

She recommends buying bulbs rather than rooted plants sold in garden centers because the former are less expensive and the foliage lasts longer — about five months, on average.

Clipping dead leaves encourages more growth, but isn't necessary.

Meems orders her bulbs online from Classic Caladiums in Avon Park; she likes their quality and variety. She also likes the growing tips on their website, classiccaladiums.com.

No matter what bulbs you plant, remember, most buried treasure ends up forgotten. Draw a map to mark the location so you don't plant over them or mistake them for weeds (like I did).

It'll help ensure your bulbous surprises are happy ones.