Amaryllis as an Antidote for Winter Woes

February 28, 2020

We often hear about seasonal affective disorder, but we don’t talk much about “winter woes.” Amaryllis offers something for everyone, for it encourages celebrations on many occasions, over as many months.

MOOD DISORDERS

We often hear about seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but we don’t talk much about “winter woes.” In fact, we don’t yet have a precise term for the lull that follows winter solstice, when the days are slowly getting longer and when SAD sufferers theoretically should feel better, but don't necessarily do better.

For now, let’s call this decrescendo “winter woes,” when the depression isn’t necessarily bad enough to demand more medical care or increased psychotropics. Yet all too many people simply drag and droop, unable to enjoy life fully during those dark cold winter months.

By now, we all know that a mere 20 minutes of morning or noon exposure to 10,000 lux full-spectrum lights helps to offset the dips in energy and drops in mood that plague many people in the autumn. But what about the next few months, when many hole up indoors, wrapped in blankets, not necessarily enjoying the warmth of the hearth-as Norman Rockwell’s iconic American images suggest-but are immobilized (although not catatonic), more like hibernating bears than happy campers?

For sure, some folks crave winter sports and are agile enough and affluent enough to ski and snowboard and are not deterred by cold windy weather. Those people spend time on the slopes, exposed to extra sunlight reflected off snow and benefit even more from the physical activity.

What about those who do not spend time outdoors, because they are cold adverse or more frail than agile, or sun-sensitive. . . for whatever the season. Or they may be more urban than rural, without access to ski slopes or snowboarding trails. Is there hope for overcoming winter doldrums without upping antidepressant doses? Better yet, are there any natural treatments that bypass medications altogether, and may be more affordable than pricey (and often ugly) industrial-style FS lights?

I have a suggestion, but I also have a confession. While I heartily recommend the “amaryllis antidote” to winter woes, I cannot cite double-blind studies about this, nor do I know of any scientific studies on this subject. I have only anecdotal information to share.

Planting amaryllis bulbs indoors in the fall is an amazingly easy way to ease the ennui and break the boredom of the cold winter months that linger after solstice and persist until spring. Ordering bulbs in early autumn, before the days grow shorter, is another way to boost spirits months earlier-but even those who do not plan ahead often find after-Christmas super-sales on amaryllis bulbs or potted plants.

Unlike daffodil bulbs or even early blooming crocuses, amaryllis does not demand that we wait until April to see the fruits-or I should say blooms-of our labors. In fact, it’s not laborious at all to place an amaryllis bulb in what’s called a “cozy pot,” which is simply a small pot, large enough to hold an inch of soil surrounding the bulb, but no more. The bulbous bulb-and that descriptive is not rhetorical-is sunk into the soil, two-thirds of the way down, with the top third of the bulb-the so-called “shoulders”-peeking through the dirt. Except for the very first day, when the bulb is planted in the pot, amaryllis doesn’t need water for weeks. Moreover, it doesn’t demand anything more elaborate than a windowsill.

When little leaves sprout a month later, a few stingy drops of weekly water, just enough to moisten the soil without making it soggy, will produce beautiful blooms in midwinter. Buds appear and then the flowers unfold, even when the landscape outside is frozen solid with icicles hanging from trees.

Many people, me included, associated amaryllis with Christmas celebrations and poinsettias. Like many assumptions, that one is not totally true. Amaryllis is truly nonsectarian. Most amaryllises are not even red, as are poinsettias. Amaryllis may be coral or peach or pink or white as well as red, with many hues in between. It may be striped or stippled, big or small, single or twins or quintuplets or more. Moreover, some amaryllis varieties bloom for Christmas and some bloom for solstice. More likely, Amaryllis flowers appear for Kwanzaa or Chanukah, for New Year’s Day, or Little Christmas, or Three Kings Day or Orthodox Christmas or lunar new year, as celebrated by Asians and Asian Americans. Flowers persist to Martin Luther King Day and Presidents day through Groundhog Day and Mardi Gras. Recently, pre-grown red amaryllises have been recommended for Valentine’s day.

There have been years when amaryllis blooms lasted through Purim and Passover and almost made it to Easter, when outdoor daffodils sing about the start of spring. In short, amaryllis offers something for everyone, for it encourages celebrations on many occasions, over as many months.

Even better than enjoying its lovely flowers, which for many is enough, planting amaryllis bulbs offers us the satisfaction of knowing that we grew this bulb ourselves with so little effort. Studies show that behavioral activation, which is a fancy way of saying that doing something instead of doing nothing, augments antidepressants even more reliably than cognitive behavioral therapy and far better than psychodynamic therapy.1 We also know that spending time in nature improves mood but who’s to say that nature must always be outdoors rather than indoors? Certainly, it’s nice to live near green space, save for those who suffer from hay fever, and it’s better to devote two hours weekly to nature, as studies recommend, but there is no reason not to bring nature inside, to enjoy its benefits today.

Perhaps someone will study the amaryllis antidote someday but right now I leave it to each of you readers to conduct your own case-control studies (Audubon Society newsletters post notices about nature-related studies concerning mood and medicine but have not yet mentioned amaryllis). What have you got to lose except $10, the price of the bulb coupled with a small dollar store plastic pot, filled with a little planting soil?

Dr Packer is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt Sinai, New York, NY.

References:

1. Park LT, Zarate CA Jr. Depression in the primary care setting. N Eng J Med. 2019;380:559-568.