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!

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4 responses to “Drunken Paperwhites

  1. Have grown paperwhites in water for years for Thanksgiving and holiday gifts. I just put the bulbs at the bottom of a tall clear vase, and keep adding water as the roots grow and push the bulbs up, making sure the water doesn’t get up to the neck of the bulb. The bulbs must not fall over, so there has to be 2,3,or 4 bulbs at the bottom ‘shoulder to shoulder’. The height of the vase keeps the stems and flowers from tilting over–and that way you can see the whole show from roots to flowers. I don’t like the look of pebbles or pearlite, but prefer to see the wonderful root systems doing their thing.

    • I’ve seen P Allen Smith use a tall vase for paperwhites but he added stones. I have to say I like your way of doing it. All you need is a vase and bulbs – I’ll be giving it a try this year. Thanks for sharing it!!!

      • Barbara Hamaker

        I put 3 bulbs in a brandy snifter (not a large one…) and they seem to be very happy–again you just have to be sure water does not reach the neck of the bulb! You can sometimes put one bulb in a tall drinking glass if it is narrow enough. My neighbor and his son did that, and are having a contest to see whose bulb blossoms first.

      • I’m trying it in a wine bottle with the neck cut off – that’s tall enough to support the plant and narrow enough for one bulb…

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