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!).
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.
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!