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. Continue reading
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!
The effect of alcohol on ‘Ziva’ paperwhite narcissus. Left is an untreated plant and right is a plant grown with 5% alcohol instead of water. Photo courtesy of FlowerBulb Research Program, Cornell University
As a garden communicator I am always collecting information for use with my own garden, for other gardeners, and even for future articles. A reliable source of local gardening information is the Virginia State Cooperative Extension office, located at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg. The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) website has scores of handouts on gardening–everything from annuals to vegetables to trees and shrubs. Most are short, black and white, pdf files that one can download quickly but some are small, full color publications such as “Fooling Mother Nature: Forcing Flower Bulbs for Indoor Bloom.” Written by George Graine, a local VCE Master Gardener, reviewed by Holly Scoggins, Associate Professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Horticulture, and produced by Lindsey Nelson, Communication Project Coordinator at VT’s Department of Horticulture, this 10-page handout is very easy to read with several color photos of bulbs and charts that provide additional information. In fact, Publication HORT-76NP is so well written that it won a Silver Award of Achievement from the Garden Writers Association’s Media Awards Program this year.
All of the VCE gardening publications are designed for home gardeners but they are science-based and reviewed by horticulturists or experts in the field. All are available for public use and can be re-printed without further permission, providing the use includes credit to the author/photographer and to the VCE, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University. Simply put, these publications can be copied and distributed at garden clubs and nurseries, for seed/bulb fund raisers, for teachers and children who have school-based gardens, and for people who have community garden plots. They are great resources for writing articles and even stimulating ideas for future articles. Check out https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/ every season for timely information!