Giving your Paperwhite and other narcissus a nip of vodka, gin or whiskey could help keep them short and prevent them from falling over. It’s true. Grab a bottle and keep reading.
One of the easiest and most popular winter duties is growing pots of beautiful, fragrant Paperwhite Narcissus. Paperwhites provide clusters of white flowers and perfume the season when we you need it most, and you can time them to bloom exactly when you desire. In fact, for a beautiful blooming centerpiece on your Christmas table, this is the weekend to start your Paperwhites. For blooms on New Years Day, wait one more week. Valentine’s Day bloom means a mid January start date.
Unlike most bulbs that require a period of dark, cool temperatures, Paperwhites will grow and bloom without waiting…even without soil! It’s easy . . . no need to overcomplicate the process.
Start with the biggest bulbs you can find. Bigger bulbs mean more flowers. Small bulbs may not flower at all. Try this . . . with a medium size hand, see if you can reach around the bulb and touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your middle finger. If you can, shop somewhere else; these bulbs are too small. A one inch gap is even better. Use as many bulbs as will fit in the container you plan to use. Crowd them together, anything less will look sparse on Christmas day.
Paperwhites will grow in just about any container, from a shallow bowl surrounded with pebbles, a low pot filled with dirt, or even a tall clear vase that is wide enough to hold a cluster of bulbs set on top of some rocks. For fun, I’ve even used teacups and Mason jars. To hold the bulbs in place, use almost any material including pebbles, shards of rock, glass marbles, broken tiles, sand or soil. Be creative, but be careful to coordinate the container and the supporting material with the table and décor where it will eventually be displayed. Clear glass vases, either short and wide or tall and narrow, filled also with clear glass stones or marbles is especially classy. The all glass display allows the roots and bulb to be seen and makes a striking presentation on a table.
Put a shallow layer of your planting material in the bottom of the container and place the bulbs on top of this . . . cover the bulbs with more of the material and, depending upon your style, leave the tip of the bulb either just below the surface or as much as half exposed.
Add water over the bulbs into the planter until the water reaches a level just below the bottom of the bulbs. Check the water level every day or two and add more as needed. Soon leaves will grow, followed by fragrant white flowers.
The common frustration about growing Paperwhites is that they become too tall and flop over. The best way to avoid this is to grow the container outdoors, in a bright location away from the house, where they receive the full effects of a warm day and a cool night. When the buds are plump and about ready to pop, bring them indoors and enjoy them. This will work almost perfect every time. Conversely, if you keep the Paperwhites indoors during their entire growing time, they’ll be a floppy mess, held up with twine, sticks and other unsightly props.
A second alternative to floppy Paperwhites is to plant several bulbs in a tall glass vase, about six or eight inches wide and three times as tall. Put two or three inches of marbles or stones in the bottom of the vase, place the bulbs and then add more marbles or stones to cover the bulbs as previously described. When the stems are tall and blooming they will be nicely supported by the sides of the vase.
Now here’s where the gin comes in. Cornell University research found that a touch of booze is a great way to keep Paperwhites from getting too tall. Dilute solutions of alcohol – but not sugary beer or wine – are an effective way to shorten stem and leaf growth.
When a 4 to 6 percent dilution of liquor is properly used, Paperwhites will grow 30 to 50% smaller, but their flowers will be as large, fragrant and long-lasting as usual. With a little jiggering – no pun intended – your Paperwhite display will be sturdy and full, not floppy.
If you decide to liquor up your Paperwhites this holiday season, wait until the shoots are a couple of inches high, then drain the water and replace it with a solution of 4 to 6 percent alcohol – such as dry gin, unflavored vodka, whiskey, white rum, gold tequila or mint schnapps. To get a 5 percent solution from 80-proof liquor, which is 40 percent alcohol (such as gin, vodka, whiskey, rum or tequila), add one part liquor to seven parts water. Don’t overdo it, concentrations over 10 percent alcohol may harm the plants, and don’t use beer or wine.
Now simply use this solution, instead of water, for further watering of your bulbs. It’s as simple as that. You can have some fun by doing a simple experiment having one bowl of bulbs given normal water and the other given the alcohol.
This may be the only time this holiday season that a nip of gin will prevent something from falling over.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar