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To Grow Paperwhites That Won’t Flop Over, a Nip of Alcohol

Category: Presenting "The Curious Gardener"

I love growing pure white narcissus paperwhite bulbs for holiday decorations and gifts, but I wish they wouldn’t get so leggy that they flop over as soon as they start blooming. I learned that the bulb industry, with Cornell University, has a solution for people like me. Read on for step-by-step instructions…

It turns out that alcohol, diluted with water, is what shortens the narcissus stems. If you follow our instructions below, the stems will be 1/3 to 1/2 shorter with the same-sized flowers.  Caution: if you give them too much alcohol it could be toxic to the plant.

Be sure to allow 3 weeks between the time you pot up your bulbs and the time you want them to bloom. Then, follow these instructions for shorter, sturdier paperwhite stems that won’t flop over. Note: If you want the longer, leggier paperwhites, just leave out the alcohol.

Step 1. Select a container for growing your paperwhite bulbs.  If the container does not have drainage holes in the bottom, then use stones as your planting medium instead of potting soil, or the bulbs may rot before they have a chance to bloom. If your container has drainage holes then fill it with potting soil.

Step 2. Press bulbs nose up into the soil or stones, with the tops sticking out (I usually leave at least ½ the top of the bulb sticking out).

Step 3. Water well. If using stones, fill container so that the bulbs are just touching the water. If using soil, keep soil damp but not soaking wet.

Step 4. Keep at room temperature in a well-lighted area (after shoots emerge, keep out of the direct sun or the foliage will ‘stretch’ towards the sun)

Step 5. Begin watering with a dilute solution of 4-6% alcohol when shoots are about 1 -2” above the top of the bulbs (solution should not exceed 10%!) Rubbing alcohol as well as distilled spirits such as gin, vodka, whiskey, rum and tequila, are all fine. Beer and wine are not fine because of the sugar. To determine the correct dilute solution, take the % of alcohol on the label and divide by 5. (Example 1: a bottle of gin says 40% alcohol.  40 divided by 5 = 8.  I need an 8-fold dilution to yield 5% alcohol, so I will mix my solution 7 parts water to 1 part gin.) (Example 2: rubbing alcohol is 70% alcohol. 70 divided by 5 = 14.  I need a 14-fold dilution to yield 5% alcohol, so I will mix 13 parts water to 1 part rubbing alcohol.)

Extending Bloom Time of your paperwhites

As with most flowers, a warm environment can cause paperwhite blossoms to fade faster.  Move them to a cooler room at night if you want them to keep their blooms longer.

Start soon if you want to force indoor bulbs for next Spring

If you want to force indoor bulbs in the early spring,  put the bulbs in the refrigerator for 6-8 weeks first. Bulbs that are good for forcing indoors: crocus, muscari, hyacinth, daffodil and tulips (‘Single Early’ and ‘Triumph’). I received some beautiful parrot tulips as a gift last Spring, and I plan to try to force them also.

2 thoughts on “To Grow Paperwhites That Won’t Flop Over, a Nip of Alcohol

  1. Ruth Rogers Clausen says:

    Glad you did the math for readers Dorian! Thanks

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