Pickled Paperwhites

By Susan Littlefield

Paperwhite narcissus are favorite bulbs for winter forcing. Their white or yellow blossoms are a lovely antidote to winter's bleakness. But unlike tulips, daffodils and other hardy bulbs that need to be tricked into thinking they've had a winter sleep before they'll bloom, these tender bulbs need no chilling period before producing their fragrant flowers.

We should point out that not everyone finds the scent of paperwhites entirely pleasing. Their fragrance seems to be one of those things that you either love or hate. Yellow varieties such as 'Grand Soleil d'Or' are reputed to have a milder scent that appeals to most. White-flowered 'Ziva' and 'Galilee' have an especially strong, musky fragrance that may not be everyone's cup of tea.

You don't even need any soil- just place the bulbs, pointed end up, in a shallow pot filled with pebbles. Add enough water to just reach the bottom of the bulbs, set the container in a cool spot with bright light and enjoy the flowers in 2 to 6 weeks. (Bulbs forced in the fall will take 4-6 weeks to come into bloom; bulbs potted later in winter may bloom in as little as 2-3 weeks.) Start pots of bulbs in succession and you'll have plants coming into flower all winter long. Forcing exhausts the bulbs and they aren't hardy in most parts of the country, so when the flowers fade, simply toss the bulbs onto the compost pile.

A common problem with forced paperwhites is that, in the warmth of our homes and the short, dark winter days, their foliage grows tall and flops over. While you can keep leaves from tumbling with stakes and string, some enterprising researchers came up with a novel way to keep plants lower and sturdier -- give 'em a drink!

Experiments done at Cornell University's Flowerbulb Research Institute found that when paperwhites were watered with a 4-6% solution of alcohol rather than pure water, the plants were 1/3 shorter and didn't need staking to remain upright, but the flowers were as large, fragrant and long-lasting as usual.

To try this technique, plant your bulbs and irrigate with water alone until the roots are growing and the green shoots are 1-2 inches tall. This usually takes about a week. Then pour off the water from around the bulbs, replacing it with a 4-6% solution of alcohol. Any hard liquor is suitable, such as gin, whiskey, vodka or tequila, but don't use beer or wine as the sugars in them can harm the plants. If you'd rather be sipping your booze than pouring it on your plants, or you don't keep liquor in your home, you can also use inexpensive isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol instead.

To figure out how to make a solution of the correct dilution, take the ″proof″ of the liquor and divide it in half to get the percentage of alcohol. For example, ″80-proof″ liquor contains 40% alcohol. (Rubbing alcohol is usually 70% alcohol.) To make a 5% solution, divide the percentage of alcohol by 5, subtract 1, and you have the number of parts of water (in this case 7) needed to mix with one part of liquor. For a 4% solution, do the same calculation, but divide by 4, and so on for other dilutions. While the higher the concentration of alcohol, the shorter the plants, as with people, excess consumption is harmful. Don't go any higher than a 10% solution to avoid harming the plants.

This technique seems to work by causing mild water stress for the plants, enough to stunt their growth somewhat, but not enough to affect flowering. So this year, raise a glass of cheer to toast these easy winter bloomers, but don't forget to share it with them!

To find out how to force tulips indoors, go to http://bit.ly/16iAV4r

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