AT holiday and Easter-time the Azalea is one of our most popular flowers. Thousands of plants are on sale in our cities, for presentation to flower-loving friends, and for house and church decoration. The plants are generally two or three years old, and are so exquisitely beautiful when in full bloom that it is quite natural for their owners to wish to utilize them another season. But little is known among amateurs as to the care and culture required by them, and under ordinary management they are almost sure to disappoint. They will live, it is true, but at such a "poor, dying rate," that not one plant out of a thousand, I feel quite safe in saying, will produce a flower the second season. This failure is the result of a lack of knowledge as to the plant's habits and requirements.
Almost invariably failure results from the treatment given immediately after the flowering-period. The Azalea has an annual season of growth. This comes on as soon as the plant has developed its yearly crop of flowers. At this period it is very important that considerable warmth should be given, and it should be showered daily, heat and moisture combining to bring about the desired result. If neglected at this time-as it generally is-growth will be defective, and a poor foundation be secured for flowers in the coming season. Success in the culture of this plant depends largely, as I have said, on the treatment the plant receives at this period.
As soon as flowering is over remove the plant to a place several degrees warmer than that in which it has been kept while in bloom. Begin the shower-bath practice at once. Apply water in the morning, while the temperature is rising, and see that the sun does not shine on the plant until it is dry. Be very careful about watering. The Azalea has roots finer than the finest thread, and these are produced in such quantities that they form a thick mass in the center of the pot, through which water finds it difficult to penetrate. But it is imperatively necessary that water should reach every portion of its root-system, and therefore great care must be taken to see that no part of the soil is allowed to get dry. It is a good plan to run a wire through and through the mass of roots, thus forming little channels by which the water can be conducted where it is most needed. If the roots fail to receive the proper amount of water the plant often drops its leaves. If this occurs during the summer you will be safe in concluding that you will get no flowers from it that season, because it sets its buds months before they develop into flowers. Therefore it is very important that from the time buds are formed until they are developed the plant should receive no check.
Under ordinary amateur treatment the Azalea will bloom in January. While in bloom keep it in a cool room. Its flowers will last for weeks there, but in a hot room they will be short-lived.
After flowering give the treatment advised above.
In May or June put the plant out of doors. I would advise sinking the pot in the soil, in a cool, airy, but somewhat sunny place. Put some coal ashes under it to keep out worms. And be sure-be very sure-to see that the plant gets all the water it needs from this time on. On this depends success. No amount of after-treatment can overcome the bad effects resulting from a little neglect. Examine the soil in the pot nearly every day to make sure that there is no lack of moisture there. Run the wire through the thick mass of fibrous roots at least once a week, for the little channels made by it will soon close if the operation is not repeated frequently.
If plants are ordered from the florist in fall, great care must be taken in potting them if they are not sent in pots. Crowd the soil down very firmly about the ball of earth containing the roots of the plant. If this is not made as firm as the soil in which the roots are, water will run through it without penetrating the latter, and there will be trouble at the beginning. It is therefore very important that all the soil in the pot should be of equal density. Provide good drainage. Pot the plant low- that is, let there be a space of at least an inch between the surface of the soil and the rim of the pot. And let the soil be somewhat higher at the edge of the pot than at the center. This prevents the water you apply from running away from the base of the plant. In watering, it is a good plan to fill the pot to its brim, and allow it to soak into the soil gradually.
The chief enemy of the Azalea is the red spider. If the leaves of the plant begin to fall look it over sharply to ascertain whether the trouble is due to dryness at the roots or the ravages of the spider. If you find tiny webs under the foliage, you may safely conclude that the spider is responsible for the mischief that is being done. Simply showering the plants will not rout the enemy. Give the plants a dip-bath in hot water, as advised in the chapter on Insect Enemies. In this way you get rid of most of the spiders at once, and by frequent showerings thereafter you can generally prevent much harm being done.
There are so many superb varieties of the Azalea that it would be useless to attempt to say which are finest. All are good. Could I have but one class, however, I would choose the whites, as the flowers of this section are of the highest type of purity and loveliness. Next to them are the white and rose varieties, both double and single. I would not advise the purchase of very small plants, as it takes a long time to grow them on to good size. Plants with a compact, bushy head a foot across can be bought for a dollar, well set with buds, and such a plant will often bear as many as a hundred flowers. Large plants, three feet across will cost three dollars, very likely, but they are well worth the price asked. Such a plant will be literally covered with flowers for weeks, if given proper treatment. On no account should the Azalea go into the cellar after blooming. It is not adapted to treatment of that kind.
The Amaryllis is another flower that amateurs attempt to grow, generally with unsatisfactory results. These failures are, as in the case of the Azalea, brought about from wrong treatment. The peculiarities of the plant are not understood. In the majority of cases it is given about the same treatment that the Calla receives. The result is-leaves, but no flowers. The two plants are not at all alike, and the treatment that suits one would prove disastrous to the other.
The Amaryllis bulb should be planted on the surface of the soil rather than under it, as is generally done. Its roots are put forth from the base of the bulb, after the fashion of the Onion. Any amateur wishing to grow it, and wanting an object-lesson in its culture, can get a good deal of valuable information on the subject by going into the garden and taking a look at the Onion bed in September. Plant your Amaryllis in the same manner that you see the Onions growing there. Do not use a large pot. Six-inch pots are quite large enough for the average-size bulb.
Let the soil for this plant be a moderately rich one of loam, barnyard manure of the old, well-rotted kind, and some sand. Use two parts loam to one part manure. Never use manure that is not black with age. If you cannot get it, use bone-meal in the proportion of a teacupful to a half bushel of soil. Have good drainage. If water stands about the base of the bulbs decay almost always sets in, and that means utter failure.
When you pot the bulb just received from the florist, water it well, and set it away in a quiet place to get a start. Wait patiently. Sometimes there will be no indication of growth for months. All at once you may see a leaf shooting up, and this will be followed by another, and another, five or six often being produced at one period of growth. As a general thing the plant will not give any flowers during the first year after being potted. It is getting thoroughly established.
When your plant is making leaves feed it well. Apply some good fertilizer, preferably a liquid. Future usefulness depends on the treatment which the plant receives at each period of growth. It is then that it stores up strength which will probably be expended in the production of flowers at the next growing season. Use the fertilizer as long as the plant continues to make growth. When it ceases to throw up new foliage, gradually cut down on the water-supply, and allow the soil in the pot to become rather dry. Not entirely so, of course, but just moist enough to keep the leaves of the plant from wilting. If the regular supply of water is kept up after the growing-period is over, the plant will be encouraged to keep on growing, or trying to, and the consequence will be a weak and unhealthy plant which can seldom be coaxed into bloom. It will be understood from what I have said that the Amaryllis has a growing period and a resting period, and in order to meet the full requirements of the plant each period should be made as complete in itself as possible. Help forward growth all you can, at growing-time, and then let the plant rest until it is ready to go to work again. If each alternating period of growth and rest is made in accordance with the habits of the plant, success may reasonably be expected with it. Ignore them or interfere with them and you may expect failure.
Quite often the first indication of a renewal of growth will be the appearance of a flower-stalk. Then leaves will come, and the development of these and the flowers will go on together. A strong bulb will sometimes send up two flower-stalks, each one bearing from three to five blossoms. This is the time for the application of fertilizers. By their use we provided for succeeding crops of flowers, as the buds which will develop into flowers at the next growing season are formed at this period.
It will not be necessary to repot the Amaryllis frequently if the soil is kept supplied with fertilizers while the plant is growing. Repotting should be avoided as much as possible, as a very little disturbance of the roots often results in a failure of flowers for some time to come. If repotting seems absolutely necessary, slip the plant out of its old pot very carefully, without breaking the mass of earth apart, set it in the new pot and crumble fine soil in about it until the pot is full. Settle by watering well, never by crowding it down, as by doing this some of the roots may be injured. By shifting in this manner, the plant will not be seriously affected. Shifting should be done at the beginning of the growing-period.
Some varieties have two flowering-periods yearly, but one crop of flowers annually is all that can be counted on by the amateur.
Do not put this plant into the cellar over winter. Winter may be the time for its next growing-period, for all we know, therefore it must be kept where we can always see what it is doing.
A well-grown plant in full bloom is something any amateur may be proud of. The best varieties have flowers almost as large as an Easter Lily, with broad petals. These range in color from bright pink to intense scarlet and crimson. Most varieties have a stripe of white running through the center of each petal. Large, perfectly developed flowers are simply superb in general decorative effect.