The first time I forced bulbs to bloom indoors was when I was taking a horticulture class at Northern Virginia Community College. We were given paperwhite bulbs (Narcissus tazetta) that we placed in a shallow dish of water and pebbles. Because I took this class before we ever even heard of the Internet, I visited Merrifield Garden Center to take a photo of a paperwhite bulb in a container to show what it looks like.
The green stalks on my bulbs appeared quickly. In a few weeks, I had several tall but spindly stalks with clusters of white flowers. The flowers were quite fragrant, but because the stalks were flopping over I had to place the dish on the kitchen counter, making it look like gangly teenagers leaning against the kitchen wall.
I bet the current group of horticulture students do the same bulb forcing project but now add a shot of liquor to their bulbs. Researchers at the Flowerbulb Research Program at Cornell University have proven that using a dilute solution of alcohol shorten the stems. This is not new research but those new to gardening will appreciate this helpful tip. In fact, I bet the young undergrads have this cheat sheet in their back pocket:
After planting the bulbs in soil or stones and adding water, wait a week until the roots develop. When the green shoots grow to about 2 inches above the top of the bulbs, pour off the water and replace with a solution of 4 to 6 percent alcohol. Use gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, or tequila but do not use beer or wine. If it is a 40 percent distilled spirit, add 1 part of the alcohol to 7 parts water to yield a 5 percent solution. Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) can be used as well. If it is 70 percent alcohol, dilute one part alcohol to 10 parts water.
From then on, use the solution instead of water for the bulbs. Make sure the waterline is below the base of the bulbs so the roots are drawing in the liquid and the bulbs are not sitting in it (or will rot).
This method results in a plant that is up to one-third shorter than would normally grow – no more gangly teenagers! Because staking is difficult in a container of pebbles, this ensures that the stalks won’t flop over. It only takes about 3 weeks from planting to bloom time and the flowers last about 4 to 6 weeks. These bulbs do not need a chilling period, are relatively cheap, and are often sold in bins at garden centers in the fall. If you run out to your local garden center now, you could get flowers just in time for your holiday parties. Don’t forget to stop off at the liquor store!