Thanksgiving means a lot of things to a lot of people. While it certainly reminds me to be grateful for all that I have, where it falls on the calendar — near the end of November — never fails to remind me that I need to get my act together and start forcing paperwhite bulbs if I want them to be in bloom for Christmas.
Paperwhites produce small, white, intensely fragrant flowers. My grandmother always had paperwhites in bloom for the holidays, so now I’m reminded of her when I grow them; even the smell of them reminds me of her and her house. I’m not sure how much of a green thumb my grandmother had, but it really doesn’t matter because paperwhites are extremely easy to grow. Unlike most bulbs, they don’t require a cold period before they bloom, so you can bring them straight home from the store and begin growing them, skipping altogether that boring period of time where you plant them in the ground and let them hang out all winter before they provide any satisfaction. To grow paperwhites indoors, all you need are a container, some rocks or pebbles, and some water (and the bulbs, of course).
Mark bought some bulbs at our local garden nursery for $1 each. We have lots of small rocks that I put aside every time I plant anything outside; our yard, especially in certain places, is very rocky. So whenever I dig up a bunch of rocks, I just toss them into a container and put them in the garage. The red pot in the photo doesn’t have holes in the bottom, which is important to note since the paperwhites will just be sitting on top of the rocks surrounded by water; if the pot had holes in it, well, you can imagine the problem.
My rocks were still quite dirty (they had been in the ground, after all), so I gave them a good rinsing. Then I just dumped them in the red pot and nestled a couple of paperwhites on top. It’s important to make sure that the rocks hold the paperwhites in place because as the roots of the bulb start to grow, they may dislodge the bulb. Finally, I filled the container with water so that it just reached the bottoms of the bulbs. Don’t overfill the pot with water because the bulbs could rot. Likewise, don’t let the water level drop below the bottoms of the bulbs because the roots may dry out.
You may have noticed in the first photo that Mark bought several more bulbs than the two shown in this photo. While Thanksgiving reminds me that I need to start forcing paperwhites, I am never sure exactly how long it will take for the bulbs to start blooming. There is, in fact, some fairly wide variability. Some bulbs may bloom in as few as three weeks while others may take six. Consequently, I like to stagger my paperwhites to ensure that I have some blooming for Christmas and New Year’s. So after Thanksgiving I’ll get the other few bulbs going in another pot.
If you don’t have rocks or a container without holes, you can also plant paperwhites in some potting soil in a regular old garden pot. I’ve done that many times. How you choose to grow paperwhites really comes down to personal preference and convenience. If you go the potting soil route, just water the bulbs every few days or when the soil just starts to get dry.
While I love paperwhites, one downside to them is that they can get a bit leggy — long stems and the flowers can grow top-heavy and topple over. But researchers at Cornell University have solved this problem. Apply a solution of 4-6% alcohol in place of plain water. You can use any hard liquor such as vodka or gin; rubbing alcohol even works and would be a lot less expensive than adding liquor; don’t however, use beer or wine as the sugars are harmful to the bulbs. To achieve a solution of 4-6% alcohol, you need to know how much alcohol is present in the liquor or rubbing alcohol. Generally speaking, hard liquor is about 40% alcohol so you’ll need to dilute it quite a bit. The Cornell researchers recommend using 1 part liquor to 7 parts water. If you choose to use rubbing alcohol, which has a higher concentration of alcohol (usually about 70%), you’ll need to dilute it even more; use 1 part rubbing alcohol to 10 to 11 parts water. Either of these solutions, used in place of regular old water, will stunt the bulb’s growth but will not affect the flowers. Thus, shorter plants are produced that still flower profusely and won’t topple over. Start the alcohol and water solution after the roots have started to grow — usually about a week after putting the bulbs in water. For that first week, use plain water. I’ve never tried this alcohol-induced stunting method, but perhaps this year I will (if I can find some rubbing alcohol in the house; I don’t want to waste perfectly good liquor on my bulbs).
A blooming paperwhite would make a fabulous (and inexpensive) small holiday gift for friends, neighbors, and coworkers. You can even be inventive about the container you place them in — a mason jar or big coffee mug would be unexpected and fun. If you start growing some now (and a few more in the next couple of weeks), your timing should be perfect.