I love growing paperwhites. Paperwhites are a type of daffodil that does not need a chilling period. You can easily find the small bulbs at the garden center now. Most likely you are purchasing a white flowering cultivar known as Ziva. These are relatively inexpensive and easy to grow indoors. Just put a few bulbs in a glass with water and pebbles and voila! You have beautiful flowers in about 6 weeks.
What’s the problem? The scent. These are not the “breath of fresh air” one imagines in the winter. Instead, you may be thinking you have a gas leak or worse — rotting meat or old diapers. Like cilantro, the fragrance of paperwhites is a “love it” or “leave it” affair.
The culprit? Indole. The fragrance is caused by a chemical called indole, which also exists in trace amounts in gardenias, jasmine, and tuberose (all of which I do like). In these trace amounts, indole becomes more floral and less offensive. It is not surprising that small amounts of indole are used in perfume, such as Chanel No. 5.
Some paperwhites, like Ziva, have a higher level of indole than others. If you find this fragrance offensive, try growing cultivars with lower levels such as Inball (white flowers), Ariel (white), Nir (white), and Wintersun (white with dark yellow cup). Yellow flowering paperwhites are supposed to be low in indole but the only one I have seen for sale is Grand Soleil d’Or from this list of bulb companies.
Grand Soleil d’Or
Try growing Inball, Ariel, Nir, Wintersun, or Grand Soleil d’Or this year. They may not be available in your local garden center but they are available from specialty bulb companies.
All photos courtesy of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.
The first time I forced bulbs to bloom indoors was when I attended 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 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