The first time I forced bulbs to bloom indoors was when I was taking a horticulture class at Northern Virginia Community College in the 1970s. We were given paperwhite bulbs (Narcissus tazetta) that we placed in a shallow dish of water and pebbles.
The green stems 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, filling the room with perfume. However, the stalks were flopping over so I had to place the dish on the kitchen counter, up against the wall, making the plant look like gangly teenagers leaning against the kitchen wall.
Years later, I learned that growing them in alcohol prevents this gangly flopping by making the stems grow to a shorter height. Researchers at the Flowerbulb Research Program at Cornell University have proven that using a dilute solution of alcohol shortens the stems. This is not new research but those new to gardening will appreciate this helpful tip.
Paperwhites are cheap and easy to grow. They do not need a chilling period and they do not need soil. You can simply place a bulb in a vase with pebbles and water. Place the bulb on top of the pebbles and add enough water to enable the bulb to sit just above the water so the bulb does not rot.
To try the alcohol method, place the bulb in a vase with pebbles and water. When the green shoots grow to about 2 inches, pour off the water and replace with a solution of 4 to 6 percent alcohol. Use gin or vodka 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 and if it is 70 percent alcohol dilute 1 part alcohol to 10 parts water.
From then on, use the alcohol 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. Because staking is difficult in a vase 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. Paperwhites are easy to find now, they should be available at independent garden centers or you can order from these online bulb sources. You can also stagger the plantings so you start paperwhites in intervals and have flowers all winter long or even cut the flower stems for a floral arrangement.