December 2013

You Can Grow That! December 2013: Paperwhites

Paperwhite narcissus adorn a mantle. Photo courtesy Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

Less expensive than Amaryllis and just as rewarding for holiday blooms are paperwhites, a narcissus that does not need a cold period to bloom and perfume the room. Paperwhites are usually planted in water-holding containers, such as shallow saucers, jars or tall vases.

Add a bed of gravel, river rock, marbles, glass beads or other pebble-like material at the bottom of the container. Arrange the bulbs on the bed of stones so that their sides are almost touching. Add just enough water to reach the base of the paperwhite bulbs, and place in a cool, bright area. Replenish with water to keep the level to the base of the bulbs.

If there’s a problem with paperwhites, it’s that they get tall, leggy and flop over. Researchers at Cornell University say giving the bulbs a stiff drink with keep them shorter and more upright. Here’s how:

  •  Place bulbs on rocks and add water to the base of the bulb, as usual. 
  • In about a week, you should see roots growing and the paperwhites should have green leaves up about 1 ½ to 2 inches above the bulb. Paperwhites usually being to bloom within a month after planting.
  • Pour off the water and replace with a solution of about 5 percent alcohol and water. That’s roughly one-part alcohol to seven-parts water. Any hard liquor will work, but vodka and gin will keep the water clear. Rubbing alcohol also will work, but with a different formula. Use one-part rubbing alcohol to 10- or 11-parts water.
  • There’s no need to dump the solution again, but continue using it, as needed, to keep the level to the base of the bulbs.
  • Don’t use beer or wine because the sugars will cause plant problems.
  • Don’t over use the alcohol. As much as 10 percent solution is toxic to the bulbs. In general, the higher the alcohol ratio (up to six percent), the shorter the bulbs will be.

If you want to extend the show, buy several paperwhites and plant a few every couple of weeks. Compost the spent bulbs.