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Want to bring back amaryllis bulbs from Amsterdam? Here's what you should know

Want to bring back amaryllis bulbs from Amsterdam? Here's what you should know
This is a type of amaryllis, called Hippeastrum papilio, also known as the butterfly amaryllis. (Con Keyes / Los Angeles Times)

Question: I travel every year to Europe and have a stopover in Amsterdam. I love amaryllises and want to bring those big, beautiful bulbs home. Do I need a certificate? If I do, where I can get one? I'm planning a trip this fall.

A. Piira

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Wellington, Fla.

Answer: The best place to buy an amaryllis bulb may be from a garden center — in the U.S.

I'm not one to discourage shopping, but I might be tempted to concentrate on searching for, say, delftware, the blue-and-white earthenware whose iconic kissing couple now comes in same-sex versions.

Two reasons for my reluctance: One is regulatory, the other is necessary expertise about sellers and amaryllis horticulture.

As is often the case with anything live coming into the U.S., the hurdles to import are significant. We recently tried to answer a Southland couple's question about bringing in jamón ibérico, after their Spanish ham souvenir was confiscated (www.lat.ms/1KZSn4J). The path to the answer was tangled and involved U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the end, the answer was short but not sweet: No dice.

Customs is crystal clear about the law for anyone coming to the U.S. with food, plants, animals and so on (the all-caps emphasis is Customs' from its website, www.lat.ms/1TlErmh): "All travelers entering the United States are REQUIRED to DECLARE meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, soil, animals, as well as plant and animal products (including soup or soup products) they may be carrying.

The declaration must cover all items carried in checked baggage, carry-on luggage, or in a vehicle."

If you're thinking of sneaking it in, think again. The fines can be significant.

Heart still set on bulbs? You'll need documentation.

The Netherlands and the U.S. have worked to "pre-clear" some items, including flower bulbs, which represent about $713 million in exports from that country.

"It is called the 'white sticker' program," said Hendrik Jan Kloosterboer of Anthos, the organization that works with the U.S. to ensure the products are safe — and easy — to import. "Prepacked flower bulb packages are stickered with a declaration stating that they meet U.S. phytosanitary requirements.

"These bulbs are sold at specific sites [mostly Dutch tourist places and also at Schiphol airport]."

Make sure that the documentation also includes a declaration of freedom from potato cyst nematodes and a USDA import permit, a USDA spokesman said in an email.

Otherwise, your bulbs will be resting at the bottom of a trash barrel instead of in a lovely pot in your festively decorated home.

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If that's not enough to discourage you, this may be the coup de grâce: If you want amaryllis bulbs that are fresh off the farm, so to speak, now is the time to buy them because of the growing/propagation season, said Sharon Doty, a horticulturalist with Van Engelen Wholesale Flower Bulbs in Bantam, Conn.

And, as is turns out, you may not have enough time to get a Christmas bloom from a Dutch amaryllis. Typically, amaryllises come from the Netherlands and South Africa, and here's an important difference, especially if you're aiming for the holidays: The South African bulbs bloom in four to six weeks, Doty said, adding, "Dutch can take eight or upward."

That means if you want your Dutch amaryllis to bloom by Christmas, you'll need to plant it by Halloween at the latest and maybe as early as Oct. 3.

You'll also find stories (see Rick Steves' forum at www.lat.ms/1MgzKd7 and Fodor's www.lat.ms/1Ph66UV) about people whose bulbs were duds or who thought they were getting a certain color of flower and ended up getting another.

If your heart is set on a growing souvenir, buy only from a reputable dealer (Keukenhof Gardens, for instance, in the spring) and consider having it shipped.

Otherwise, buy at home. As Doty said, "It's safe, it's viable and you don't have to worry."

Stress-free travel? Now that's a souvenir we'd like to have more of.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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