Monthly Archives: November 2013

Drunken Paperwhites

It’s the time of the year for growing paperwhite narcissus. You can find the bulbs in any garden center and after you plant them, within a few weeks you’ll have blossoms that’ll fill the house with their scent.

The one problem with these flowers is that unless you have a very cool and very sunny spot, they tend to get tall and leggy, toppling over and making a mess. You can tie them up or use other tricks to keep the long stems and leaves in control but recently I found a better way and it involves alcohol (for the plants, not for you!).

Alcohol Effects on Paperwhites - Left to Right Increasing Alcohol Percentage in Water

Alcohol Effects on Paperwhites – Left to Right Increasing Alcohol Percentage in Water (from Cornell Horticulture Blog)

My alma mater, Cornell, did a study a few years ago and found that if paperwhite bulbs were grown in a solution of about 7% alcohol, the plants still grow and flower, but the stems and leaves will be shorter and more compact. The exact mechanism behind this effect isn’t know (it probably has something to do with the stress/water imbalance that the alcohol causes in the plant) but what is known is that it works.

I have my way of growing paperwhites. Since these bulbs don’t need soil or nutrients to grow, I grow the bulbs in a pot of perlite and then put that pot into a container with an inch or two of water in the bottom. Like a lot of bulbs, the paperwhite roots can be very stong and push the bulbs right out of the perlite when the begin to grow. To solve this problem, I put a saucer on top of the bulbs and weight it with a can of soup or vegetables. What this does is forces the roots to grow into the perlite instead of pushing the bulbs out of it. I leave the weight on the bulbs for about a week – that’s all it takes to get the roots growing into the perlite.

Once the bulbs have started to grow, that’s the time to add the alcohol. According to the study you can use any kind of spirits with a fairly high-proof – vodka, whiskey, gin, etc. Wine and beer won’t work because their alcohol content is too low and all of the sugars in them will just lead to a moldy mess. You can also use isopropyl alcohol, a.k.a., rubbing alcohol – that’s my alcohol of choice for drunken paperwhites.

As I mentioned earlier, the goal is to have a solution of about 7% alcohol. All you need to do is take your alcohol of choice, find it’s alcohol percentage, divide it by seven and then you have the number of units of liquid that you’ll need, one of which is the alcohol. For example, if you use rubbing alcohol that’s 70% alcohol, divide 70 by 7 and you get 10. That means that to have a 7% solution, add 1 part rubbing alcohol to 9 parts water. If you’re using a 90 proof spirit, that’s 45% alcohol (the proof number is two times the alcohol percentage). 45 divided by 7 is 6.4 so a 7% solution comes from 1 part 90 proof spirit to about 5 parts water. (Don’t get too concerned about having a solution of exactly 7% – anything over 5% and  under 10% works fine; over 10% can start damaging the plants.

Paperwhite Blossom

Paperwhite Blossom

When the shoots of the bulbs have started to grow, I pour out the water that the pot has been growing in and replace it with the alcohol solution. As the plants continue to grow, I keep adding more of the alcohol solution to the pot. The result is that instead of having paperwhite plants that are 18″ tall and falling all over the place, I have nice, tidy plants that are under 12″ and blossom freely.

Whether you grow your paperwhite in perlite, stones or a hyacinth glass, I highly recommend that you get them drunk! You see, unlike humans, a drunken paperwhite is neater, cleaner and more in control. Try it once and you’ll never grow them again without adding the alcohol!


Pokeweed, Pokeweed Everywhere

After writing an article about common pokeweed (Weed du Jour – Common Pokeweed), I was especially aware this year of how many pokeweed plants were popping up in the yard and garden. It seemed like every time I turned around there was another pokeweed plant growing somewhere.

While I know that pokeweed is spread by birds eating the berries, I didn’t think there was that much pokeweed growing in the area for the birds to eat.

How wrong I was!



While pokeweed can hide a little in the summer, blending in with other plants and weeds, in the fall it becomes more obvious. By this time the plants are the size of small trees. The stems turn a reddish color and the clusters of berries hang down, covered with fruit that are dark purple bordering on the edge of black when ripe.

I’ve come to realize that pokeweed is everywhere here is south-central PA! From vacant lots to hedgerows to untended gardens and yards, large pokeweed plants are coming out of hiding, filled with berries. The birds are having a feast and the seeds are being spread, ensuring that I’ll be pulling up more pokeweed next gardening season. Since each of the berries contains 10 seeds, the birds don’t have to eat too many to spread a lot of pokeweed throughout the area!

Pokeweed Berries

Pokeweed Berries

As if to confirm my conclusions, I was thinking about this post while driving and all of a sudden a bird dropping hit the windshield. Unlike most bird droppings, this one was a bright purple/red color. There are no berries around at this time of year that would give this color to a bird’s droppings except for one – pokeweed!

When a weed seed is spread by birds, there’s not  much that you can do to prevent it from making its way into the garden. The only thing to do is be diligent with the hoe and keep the plants from getting established. That’s certainly the case with pokeweed!

Fall Colors at Chickies Rock

I went for a walk yesterday at Chickies Rock Park in Columbia, PA along the Susquehanna River. It couldn’t have been a better day. The sun was shining, the hawks were flying and the fall colors were at their peak. Below are some pictures from my adventure. While I did use a polarizing filter to amplify the colors, any other adjustment that I made were very minor.

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