Alys Fowler: hippeastrum

Hippeastrum papilio, the butterfly amaryllis, has the prettiest flowers. Photograph: Alamy

I bought my first amaryllis bulb as a teenager: one great fat bulb with a promise of a flower so kitsch I could hardly believe my luck. One became two, and it quickly turned into a habit.

I have never understood growing amaryllis for Christmas. There’s so much going on that another gaudy ornament is hardly going to be noticed. Even if you disagree, you’re too late: you needed to jump on that in early October. But, planted now, they will edge you through the dismal months the other side of Christmas. They also make a lovely present planted in a pretty pot.

The name is misleading, because they are no longer classified as true amaryllis, but are in the genus hippeastrum. These tender bulbs need to be kept indoors in winter (but hell, you’re not going out that much, so it’s hardly as if you’re going to haul the bulb with you).

Amaryllis take eight weeks to flower (six if you up the temperature). Hippeastrum papilio, the butterfly amaryllis, has the prettiest flowers, which look almost like orchids. The gaudiest are the giant doubles such as ‘Dancing Queen’; the chichi choice is dramatic dark crimson, such as ‘Belinda’.

Plant in multipurpose compost in a pot marginally larger than the bulb, two-thirds of which should sit above the surface. Water and place somewhere well lit: this is key to getting the blooms to appear quickly.

The temperature should be around 21C and no colder than 15C. Do not overwater: just make sure the soil never goes bone-dry until the first new leaves develop. Never let the pot sit in water.

Some say bulbs can grow in pots without a drainage hole, but unless you are diligent at watering and have perfect room temperature, the bulb will rot and get compost gnats. That 1950s log ceramic planter you picked up is perfect, but only if you promise to water carefully. At £10 a pop, these bulbs are expensive, so it is silly to let them rot.

Turn the pot regularly or your bloom will grow in the direction of the light; cultivars with huge blooms need staking. You can get all Martha Stewart about it and hide the ugly bulb with moss if you fancy.

After flowering, let the bulb grow on, give it liquid feed weekly and in the summer move it outside (though not in full sun). In September, bring it in to a well-lit position to force dormancy: stop feeding, reduce watering to a bare minimum and keep it at no more than 13C. Cut back leaves to 10cm and replace the top inch of compost. From October, treat as before and you should get another whopping great bloom.