Some of the most welcome holiday gifts are fleeting: sweet treats, old songs, flowers that last just long enough to be a reminder of spring. Like paperwhites.
Paperwhites are paperwhite narcissus bulbs, which you can easily coax into bloom indoors in the middle of winter. A conservatory is ideal for this, though a sunny window will work too.
Their intense, sweet fragrance is paperwhites’ main attraction, although the delicate starry white flowers are pretty too.
This plant is closely related to the daffodils that we’ve planted outdoors in the cold soil, but Narcissus papyraceus is a tender bulb, native to the western Mediterranean. Because it comes from places with warmer winters, the paperwhite narcissus doesn’t need a period of chilling in order to bloom, like daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and most of our other spring bulbs do. That’s why we can force it to bloom indoors even in early winter.
If you find some paperwhite bulbs in your stocking, you can plant them in potting mix, but water will do. Don’t entirely submerge the bulbs; just their bottoms should sit in water, because that’s where the roots grow. Most people arrange the paperwhite bulbs in a shallow dish (with no hole) in a single layer, with gravel or small stones around them to hold them in place. You’ll need to check the water daily to make sure it consistently covers just the lower third of the bulbs.
Place the dish in your sunniest spot. If that’s a window, rotate it frequently to keep the stems from leaning toward the light. It will take several weeks for the bulbs to sprout and bloom.
One problem with paperwhites is that in the low light of indoor rooms, the stems often stretch and become so tall and lanky that they fall over. There are two basic solutions for this. One is to provide more light. (How about a conservatory?) The other is feeding them booze to stunt their growth.
Yes, this is a legitimate, scientifically proven horticultural practice. Researcher William Miller of the Flowerbulb Research Program at Cornell University proved by experiment that paperwhites watered with dilute solutions of alcohol have stems one-third to one-half shorter, with flowers that are as big and last as long as normal. I have confirmed his results, using vodka.
Miller suggests that you wait until the bulbs have roots and the green shoots are 1 to 2 inches high. Then pour off the water from the dish (carefully, so you don’t spill the bulbs and gravel) and replace it with a 4 to 6 percent solution of alcohol.
To make the solution, check the percentage of alcohol on the label of your booze. For example, 20-proof liquor is 40 percent alcohol. Using 40-percent liquor, you can make a 5 percent solution by adding 1 part booze to 7 parts water.
I’ve used vodka, but you could also use gin, whiskey, rum, or tequila. Don’t use beer or wine, Miller says; their sugar will damage the plants.
You can also use rubbing alcohol, but because it has a higher concentration of alcohol top begin with, use just 1 part to 11 parts water.
If you get a gift of paperwhite bulbs from one friend and a nice bottle from another, you’ll be all set for midwinter gardening!
You may wish to consult another source. The Tait Farm has a nice description for forcing “Paperwhites” in the greenhouse: http://www.taitfarmfoods.com/greenhouse/pdf/How-To_Forcing-Paperwhites.pdf