(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 8, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
There are many types of bulbs that are ideal for off-season forcing. One of my favorites is the amaryllis because of its dramatic rate of growth and stunning blooms. Amaryllis bulbs are also widely available around the Christmas season, making them an easy project to start. Once you invest in bulbs, you can enjoy their blooms year after year, without further investment (a key factor for many teachers with limited classroom budgets.) I've included links at the bottom of the article to some excellent articles by Jill Nicolaus (Critterologist) with details on how to extend the life of your amaryllis bulbs.
Forcing most bulbs is ridiculously easy. The one warning I would give for amaryllis plants is to use a heavy pot, rather than a lightweight plastic one, as they do get rather top-heavy, and the custodians will not thank you for extra clean-up if it tips often.
- a heavy pot (clay, ceramic, terra cotta, etc), with a good drainage hole
- drip tray for underneath the pot, in case of overwatering
- good-quality potting soil
- one or more bulbs (odd numbers are usually more visually pleasing)
- newspaper to cover work surfaces
- gravel, marbles, or other decorative materials to cover the dirt, if desired
- digital camera, if desired, to record growth
- posterboard or chart paper, to record growth
I usually center my bulb-forcing lesson on math and graphing skills. First, we predict how big the amaryllis will get, and estimate when it will bloom. If the kids are unfamiliar with this project, you can also have them guess the color of the blooms. We mark all of their projections on a piece of posterboard, hung near the pot, and away we go! A digital camera is a wonderful tool for this project. I take pictures of the children potting the bulb, and of how it looked when we started the project, and glue them at the bottom of our posterboard. I also write up descriptions of the project, complete with photos, for their assessment portfolios.
As the bulb begins to send up green shoots, we start measuring. Each week, on Monday, the "Plant Helper" gets out the ruler or measuring tape, and we take a picture of him or her checking the growth since the former Monday. That picture goes above the first one, and we record the measurement, both in centimeters and inches, to introduce both units of measure. If you prefer, you can use non-standard units of measure (how many snap-blocks tall is it?) but the kids love to use tape measures and rulers!
When the buds finally break forth into glorious color, take one final picture for the top of your poster, and record the final measurements. Revisit their earlier predictions, and talk about estimating. They have a great time seeing whose guess was nearest the actual date and measurement, and learn a bit of scientific process without even knowing it. With older classes, you can create graphs, to illustrate the rate of growth, or to compare the differing speed of growth of multiple bulbs. You can also work on sequencing, if you would rather wait until the end and have the students help assemble the poster. Which picture comes first? Second? Next? Last?
Last year, I used hyacinth and narcissus bulbs instead of amaryllis, with great success. The stems don't attain the phenomenal height of the amaryllis (sometimes up to a yard tall, from the base of the stem to the top of the blooms), but in a classroom with limited space, that may be a good thing. If you plant different varieties of bulbs together, be aware that they may not bloom simultaneously. Regardless, it was wonderful to have lovely spring bulbs blooming in the midst of a long, gray winter. My only caution would be to remind you that hyacinth and paperwhites are highly fragrant, and will quickly scent your entire room. If you have a small room, or students that are sensitive to scents, you may prefer a less fragrant type of bulb. Autistic children in particular may be extremely sensitive to strong fragrances.
Finally, as the blooms fade, you can wrap up the lesson by explaining how the leaves will continue to produce food and feed the bulb, so they are ready to produce flowers again another year. Many children are surprised to find that the bulb isn't "dead" when the leaves wither, and just requires a little care to come back with more color next winter!
Of course, this project would be excellent to do at home with your children, as well. Learning and discovery should never be limited to the classroom!
For more information on forcing amaryllis and other bulbs, see these other excellent articles on this subject:
Amaryllis 101: Planting Amaryllis Blooms for Winter Color by Jill Nicolaus (Critterologist)
Amaryllis 101: Caring for Amaryllis Plants and Making Your Amaryllis Bloom Again Next Year by Jill Nicolaus (Critterologist)
Hyacinth Forcing- My First Attempt by Sally Miller (sallyg)
Bulb Lovers Unite: A Year of Bloom by Toni Leland (tonileland)
Jill Nicolaus has my gratitude for sharing her lovely amaryllis pictures! All other photographs are my own.