Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
December, 2010
Regional Report

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In the case of paperwhites, a little alcohol shortens their stems. A good thing-- so they don't flop.

In the "Spirits" of Paperwhites

Some people know just how to catch someone's attention. Mark handed me a photocopy - first page title, Ginning Up Paperwhites. "It's from Herbaceous (plants class)," he explained. "I thought you might be interested."

My eyes skimmed for the highlights. When forcing narcissus to bloom indoors, watering with a diluted solution of alcohol will stunt their growth. This is a good thing. Shorter-stemmed paperwhites won't flop over like their long-stemmed counterparts.

I nodded, recalling my last, very sad experience with paperwhites. They grew tall, spindly AND floppy. The fragrant flowers were too heavy for the weak stems.

"Pickling Your Paperwhites" is worth a try, I decided. Instructions are compliments of Cornell University professor William B. Miller, Director of the Flowerbulb Research Program. Official project title"Using Alcohol to Reduce Growth of Paperwhite Narcissus (Narcissus tazetta)."

Herbaceous Plants instructor Susan Mrugal at Temple University/Ambler College was generous with more details. "You can force any bulb," she explained. "Paperwhites are ready-- meaning they don't need a cold period to bloom."

Tulip, crocus, hyacinth, and other daffodils require pre-chilling to bloom properly, at least 8 to 10 weeks in the winter garden or your refrigerator at 40 to 45 degrees F. We plant spring bloomers in autumn so winter's cold primes them to flower.

To force paperwhites, Mrugal and her students placed the bulbs in a fine gravel. "I like that because it's a little heavier and weighs down the pot." Small pebbles and marbles will also do. Soil isn't heavy enough to keep the blooming bulbs upright.

For home or gifts, Mrugal suggested "a clear hurricane vase with bulbs atop stones. Add more stones to support the vase." She puts three or four bulbs in a #10 vase, one or two bulbs in a 4-inch greenhouse pot.

I found colorful polished glass in various shapes-- green cubes and flat ovals and circles. I bought enough to hold 50 paperwhites. I spotted handsome clear glass tumblers nearby, both round and square, that are perfect for featuring one, two or three bulbs.

Mrugal potted hers in October., but you can force bulbs anytime. Started now, they'll bring bright color and refreshing scent in February.

She filled the container with just enough water to reach the bottom of bulb. Moisture there will stir roots to grow. Too much water will cause the bulb to rot. She keeps her pots in indirect sunlight. Direct sunlight is fine too.

When shoots reach two to three inches, drain off the water and replace it with the water/alcohol mixture. "The small amount of alcohol stunts the plant just enough so it doesn't get too tall. It will keep the paperwhites a little bit shorter-- one-third to one-half the normal size. It doesn't affect bloom size, time, or fragrance," she added.

Use a four to six percent alcohol solution made from just about any "hard" liquor or rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol. For a 5 percent solution from 40% (80 proof) distilled spirits (gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila), add 1 part spirits to 7 parts water. For 5 percent alcohol, divide percentage of alcohol by 5, subtract 1.

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