When you are toasting family and friends during the holidays, pour an extra glass for seasonal indoor flowering bulbs such as paperwhites and amaryllis.


Paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta) are especially popular this time of year because they don’t need a cooling period to flower, are easy to grow, usually bloom in two-three weeks and their strong fragrance will fill a room. But, paperwhites often grow lanky as they stretch toward the little amount of sunlight available in most homes. The result is a weak stem that collapses under the weight of the flowers when they open, ruining the aesthetic appeal of what should add to the festive spirit  of the season and bring a cheerful look to a winter day.


“Just give them some gin!” a lady shouted to Brent Heath of Brent and Becky’s bulbs in Gloucester, Va., when Brent was giving a lecture on seasonal bulbs in Greenwich, Conn. about 20 years ago. After the talk, he was assured gin does, in fact, keep paperwhites upright. Not entirely convinced, he gave it a try. Unfortunately, he was heavy-handed with the booze and overdosed the plants.


amaryllisNevertheless, recent studies by Cornell University’s Flowerbulb Research Program have proven that alcohol — gin, vodka, whiskey, rum or tequila (in moderation) — prevents paperwhites from flopping over. The reason: Alcohol reduces the amount of water the plants take up. The result is a sturdy plant a third to half as tall as an untreated plant with no reduction in flower size or length of bloom. Remember your mother warning you about the dangers of alcohol? It will stunt your growth. Turns out that is not an old wife’s tale.


There’s more good news. Any alcohol will work. You don’t have to pickle your paperwhites, amaryllis (at right) or other bulbs with an expensive bottle from your liquor cabinet. For bulbs, rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) will work just fine.


Just follow these easy steps:


  1. Place a layer of stones, marbles or decorative beads in a three-four-inch-deep dish with no drainage holes.
  2. Set the bulbs on the gravel. Hint: Crowd them to create a full flower display. At this point they don’t have to be in a sunny area.
  3. Fill gaps between the bulbs with more of the “medium” used in Step One.
  4. Add plain water until it comes to the top of the stones.
  5. When roots are growing and leaves are one-two inches above the bulb, pour off the water.
  6.  Replace the plain water with a solution of 4 to 6 percent alcohol made from just about any “hard” liquor. Do not use beer or wine because they contain too much sugar. Now, place the bulb dish in a sunny window.

If at this point you are thinking “I am terrible at math! How do I figure the percentage?” Here’s the answer: To get the 5 percent solution in Step Six, just add one part booze (distilled spirits are 40 percent alcohol), to seven parts water. The result is an 8-fold dilution, of which 5 percent is now alcohol (40 divided by 8). Note: Rubbing alcohol is usually 70 percent alcohol. If you use this, dilute it to one part rubbing alcohol to 10 parts water.


At word of caution is appropriate: Moderation. Too much alcohol is toxic. Keep your dilution rates under 10 percent.


The same rates will work for holding amaryllis upright as well. Because of the size of amaryllis bulbs and the flower, plant these in potting soil.


Best of all, enjoy beautiful flowers that add a festive air to the holidays, give a hint of spring and help take the chill off a winter day.


Photo: Tom Oder


See also:

How to grow holiday bulbs outdoors