Pickling Your Paperwhites (Narcissus grandiflora)
I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now – and it works. Adding alcohol prohibits the lengthy growth of the stalks (which would make them fall over in a shallow dish). It does not affect the size of the flowers. This started out as an experiment with the Flower Bulb Research Program at Cornell University. Since 2005, this experiment has been featured in scores of magazine articles, gardening columns, newscasts, and blogs around the globe.
The paperwhite narcissus is a popular bulb for indoor forcing in the winter months. Unlike most other daffodils, paperwhites do not require a cold period. With a little water, they rapidly form roots and grow leaves and shoots. Remember years ago when we forced bulbs in a dark closet?
Containers: They can be grown in all kinds of decorative bowls and vases, and even kitchen items, such as coffee mugs (one bulb per mug) and Bundt pans. The important thing is that containers should be deep enough, preferably 4-5 inches, to permit enough pebbles to be spread under and around the bulbs to give support to the root masses. Fill a container 2/3 full with polished aquarium pebbles or some clean pea gravel, and then arrange the bulbs on top. Odd groupings of three, five, or seven bulbs make the most attractive displays. I have found some really pretty shallow bowls at thrift stores.
Start your bulbs in plain water. When roots have formed and the green shoot is 1 to 2 inches long, pour off the water and replace with a solution of 4 to 6 percent alcohol. If you’re using 80 proof liquor (40 percent alcohol), add 1 part of alcohol to 7 parts of water. I used cheap gin.
As evaporation occurs, replenish the bulbs with the same gin-mixture, to a level that just touches the base of the bulbs. Keep the good stuff for yourself later (the sugars from beer and wine damage plants). Remember that you’re pickling your paperwhites, not yourself at this time! Rubbing alcohol, either 70 or 100 percent isopropyl alcohol, can be substituted. Just dilute it more.
This booze-and-water business really works. The plants grow to half their normal size, but with flowers just as large and fragrant as usual. If plants are given much more than 10% alcohol, growth problems will start, and 25% alcohol is dramatically toxic. So, moderation is the key!
Below is a picture of my paperwhites a year ago.
Then simply use this solution, instead of water, each time you water your bulbs. It’s as simple as that. The result will be a plant that is 1/3 shorter, but with flowers just as large, fragrant, and long-lasting as usual. The plant will be nicely proportioned and won’t need support stakes, wires, or other gizmos to keep it upright. Turn the bowls a little every day so the plants won’t be leading toward the light.
For Thanksgiving bloom, plant the bulbs in mid-October. For Christmas fragrance, make your planting the third week of November. Plantings made after New Year’s Day usually bloom in only 3 weeks’ time.