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. For a beautiful blooming centerpiece on your Thanksgiving table, start them on the fourth week of October, for Christmas Day bloom on the last week of November and for New Year’s Day flowers on the first week of December. Valentine’s Day bloom would be a mid-January start date.
Unlike most forced 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, nearly touching; anything less will look sparse later on.
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 pebbles. 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 with the table and décor where it will eventually be displayed. Clear glass vases, either short and wide or tall and narrow, partly filled 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. Keep in mind that the bulbs will push themselves upwards slightly as they grow.
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 most common frustration of growing Paperwhites is that they become tall and floppy. To avoid this, grow the container outdoors, in a bright location away from the house, where they receive the full effects of warm days, cool nights and strong light. When the buds are plump and about ready to pop, bring them indoors and enjoy them. Conversely, if you keep the Paperwhites indoors during their entire growing time, they’ll be a floppy mess, held together with twine, sticks and other unsightly props.
Another 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 a few inches of marbles or stones in the bottom, place the bulbs on top 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 for a fun trick. 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 just as large, fragrant and long-lasting. 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 the 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. Don’t use beer or wine.
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 grown with normal water and the other with the alcohol.
This may be the only time this holiday season that a nip of gin will prevent something from falling over.