(Paperwhite) Bulbs and Booze

(Paperwhite) Bulbs and Booze

Forcing paperwhite narcissus is a holiday tradition for many families. They're easy, inexpensive, quick to grow and flower once potted, and bear a distinctive fragrance. They don't even have to be potted in soil to perform. The fact of the matter is most people "pot" them in shallow bowls with gravel, decorative stones or even marbles rather than soil. So, what could go wrong?

The common bugaboo is the stems and flowers tend to stretch and elongate, weakening them. Then they splay open like an arborvitae in icy, wet snow. Unlike many flowers it's hard to support them so they look natural. Try running a stake through stones or marbles and see how that works for you. No, not very well.

As the story goes (and good readers, this is true, not another urban legend) a writer for the New York Times posed a question to Cornell University horticulture professor William Miller. Question- "Does gin affect paperwhites?" Great person to ask, right? Those of you that don't interact with the public daily may be flabbergasted and wonder how such a question could have arisen. Not me. The public's gardening questions have kept me on my toes for decades. And watch out for the full moon...

Professor Miller and his horticulture student, Erin Finan, did the hard work. In the end their research showed that moderate dilutions of alcohol from certain sources did indeed shorten the plants and keep their flowers and foliage upright. 

The plants were as much as 1/3 to 1/2 shorter than the water only control group. Flower size and fragrance were, happily, not affected.

For those of you that are tired of battling rogue paperwhites and want more control here's what Professor Miller and Ms. Finan's research revealed:

  • Plant in stones and water as usual. The bulbs will root and shoots will start elongating quickly. Once stems are several inches tall pour off the water.
  • The day day you pour off the water take any hard liquor (gin, whiskey, vodka. etc.) or rubbing alcohol and create a 5% solution.
  • I wouldn't do that to you. Saving you the math to get from a 40% alcohol product to a 5% solution (by the by, don't use beer or wine due to their sugars), just add one part liquor to seven parts water. Easy, right?
  • Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) is 70% alcohol. So, add one part to ten parts water.
  • This is an ongoing process throughout the life and flowering of your paperwhites, not a one-shot deal. So, each time you need to raise the "water level" in the container use the alcohol/water solution.
  • As with people, too much alcohol can be a problem. Don't be tempted to increase the solution to more than 10%. Toxicity will occur.

For those that are scientifically inquisitive and care the Cornell researchers believe alcohol in that lower percentage affects/slows the plant's water uptake. That lack of water somehow shortens flowers and foliage, yet doesn't change flower quality.

In the end if you love paperwhites and the above process reminds you (chillingly) of chemistry class there's another solution. Sorry, pun not intended. I never joke about chemistry. Get a tall glass vase and still plant them in stones and water. As they grow if they start to flop the vase will hold everything upright like a bouquet. Last call....