Giving bulbs as holiday gifts is long-standing tradition

newspaperThe practice of giving flower bulbs as a gift dates back to Colonial Virginia. And so do questions about how to care for the resulting blooms through the winter.

“Earlier on, when bulbs began to be collected and grown inside, the winter-blooming ones from the Mediterranean area called narcissus were collected by most people,” said Brent Heath, owner of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester County. “They were probably brought by the early colonists here. And for those who settled in northern Florida and southern Georgia and along the Gulf Coast, these bulbs naturally bloomed in wintertime, and they could be used for Christmas decorations.”

Nursery operations like Brent and Becky’s Bulbs are part of Virginia’s Green Industry. Each year nursery, greenhouse, floriculture and sod operators sell more than $250 million worth of products to consumers or wholesalers. It’s the fifth-largest segment of Virginia’s farm economy, and one with lots of visual appeal. Heath said several types of bulbs make good holiday gifts, but the most popular is the amaryllis.

“The hippeastrums, which are commonly called amaryllis, these are giant, big bulbs from South America. And they naturally bloom in the wintertime, so we don’t have to trick them into blooming early,” Heath said.

“Just keep it growing in the pot, until danger of hard freeze is over. Then you can take it and plant it in the garden in the spring. In September, if you want it bloom inside again, you need to dig it, or take it out of the pot, let it dry out and have a two month rest period. It needs that rest period in order to trigger it to bloom again,” he said.

“You do need to plan ahead if you want to plant bulbs for gifts that will flower in time for Christmas,” Heath added. August and September are the latest windows of opportunity to plant hyacinth, narcissus and amaryllis bulbs for December flowering. Many home and garden stores will have bulbs ready to purchase for gift-giving at just the right time.

Both amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs grow well in soil or water, Heath said. They prefer a cool room such as an unheated sun porch. Some winter bulbs can be planted outdoors after they finish blooming and the foliage has started to turn brown. Often those bulbs will bloom a second time.

For more information about the care and keeping of winter bulbs, contact a local Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener group, or visit

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