out, out damn paperwhites!

buddha-wpaperwhitesEVERY YEAR I FALL FOR IT: those fat paperwhite narcissus bulbs at the garden center, promising winter cheer. And then I pot them up, and they grow too tall and flop, and (worst of all) stink up the house. What’s the remedy (besides unpotting them and putting them outside as an offering to Buddha, my recent “solution”)?

I got the answer to at least part of the riddle from Sidney, a Rhode Island gardener who’d attended a lecture I gave there recently. Too bad I didn’t hear earlier, because Sidney (who charmingly says, “I have been gardening for 81 years and I think I would just shrivel up if I were taken away from the country”) had the trick for the floppiness:

Grow your paperwhite bulbs in 8 parts water to 1 part gin or vodka. This works out to half a cup of spirits to 4 cups water, and keeps the leaves short, Sidney confirms, after growing boozy bulbs for three years.

In the past I have grown the paperwhites in tall glass cylinders, in pebbles and water, so that the leaves and stems are supported as they grow by the sides of the vessel. But Sidney’s method allows you to choose any variety of pot, which sounds ideal.

I’m thinking next year I may also add a few drops of bleach to the mixture (this is starting to sound scary, like some mad-scientist experiment instead of floriculture, I know). But a few drops of bleach in a vase of water helps limit the strong scent of cut flowers like Allium, the ornamental onion, so perhaps it would work in this case, too. Anybody have any first-hand knowledge?

  1. Marion Roach Smith says:

    Oh dear. Oh my. Oh, here we go. I’m Margaret’s sister, and I just took delivery on my annual box of 100 paperwhites after lugging home the 25 tall glass (square or round) holders and 15 bags of tiny river rocks with which I’ll make my holiday host and teachers-at-my-daughter’s-school gifts. Last year one teacher wrote me a note thanking me for the “onions.” (I do wonder how her Christmas stuffing tasted). I love the gift, always make several for our home, and adore the smell as they bloom; I interpret how they fall over as being exhausted by their own beauty. And there you have it: sisters.

  2. Terri Clark says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Marion, as I adore paperwhites especially variety ‘Constantinople’ which takes a full 9 weeks to bloom giving great anticipation for January flowers. I move pots to a very cool room or out to the porch in the evening(weather not below freezing, of course) when possible and they stand up straight as soldiers when they come back inside after that. There are two kinds of people- those who love that smell and those that don’t. I do!

  3. GCH says:

    Or you could do the Adams family thing and just decapitate them. That would solve the stinky problem as well as the hangover.

  4. margaret says:

    Welcome, GCH. I like calling it the ‘Adams Family Thing.’ I had forgotten Morticia’s propensity for disembodied blooms. Good idea w/paperwhites. Do come see us again.

  5. Jean S says:

    I fell for paperwhites this year, after many years of not doing them. So far, they seem to have good posture.

    But I’ve already decided, from now on out, to buy fresh flowers at my local New Seasons market. Right now, they have an all-white bouquet of flowers that is just stunning.

  6. Sarina says:

    Put the planted-up bowls in complete darkness until about 2 inches of roots have formed, and the top is sprouting. This helps prevent lankiness which is a problem in South Africa, where I garden, due to sudden warm springtimes.

  7. margaret says:

    Welcome, Sarina…all the way from South Africa, the land of amazing native bulbs. Great suggestion; of course I should know all this but thank goodness you are all here to help.

  8. Kathy Wolfe says:

    Andrew Beckman (Martha’s Sirius Radio garden expert) said he almost lost all his paperwhites by using the rubbing alcohol to start his plants. He suggests starting them in just water and adding the well-diluted alcohol of choice after growth starts. Also, when paperwhites droop, you can put them out in the cold for a time and they will right themselves.

  9. margaret says:

    Welcome, Kathy, and thanks for the alcohol update. Who knew this was such a tricky business, so perilous? Great tips (Andrew is one my regular go-to’s for help, too).

  10. Alleson says:

    Too late for alcohol, my paperwhites are laying on the table beside their short vase. I even tied them with ribbon last week. What to do now. I think I will try to repot them in a tall vase. Any suggestions?

  11. margaret says:

    Welcome, Alleson. Yes, either repot in a tall cylinder or I think turn them into a vase of cut flowers (and keep them cool so they will last). Thanks for visiting.

  12. Rhonda says:

    Girl, you crack me up….so very funny and wow what is funnier is that it works…come by and blog with me.

    Let me see if I can make a frog boy for ya and put him on the blog…yeah maybe he also needs a girl friend named Lilly.

    See Ya Soon.

  13. Chloe says:

    OMG- my boyfriend hates the smell of paperwhites… I hate that they fall all over the place… but hey I plant them every year because its what I do dammit!!! The vodka cocktail is perfect for me… too late for them this year… they are already like cornstalks… but next year may do the vodka and a little of the addams family thing… that way at least I tried to keep the stinch down … giggle…. giggle…. burp..

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Msgalvez. Interesting what a mess of spaghetti the paperwhites roots prove to be. I have to say I use gravel from my patio for mine, and after the bulbs are done, I just take the whole thing out to the patio I stile the gravel from and upturn it and shake everyone out right there. Still lose a few pebbles in the process that won’t come loose. Hope to see you again soon.

  14. LeNae Denson says:

    My solution in the south is to plant paperwhites at the entrance of my house. This way everyone enjoys the fragrance as they come and go but are not locked in the house with the the overwhelming fragrance.
    I usually plant for a New Year’s Eve Party and then enjoy them through the month. LeNae
    I sent you some pics off my flickr page.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, LeNae, and thank you for the link. The pots of paperwhites are beautiful, and outdoors=better on the nose, yes. In your climate it’s a great solution. Hope to see you again soon.

  15. Jill says:

    Hi Margaret, I’ve never done a blog before. I received a beautiful silver pot filled with 4 paperwhite bulbs ready to bloom about 3 weeks ago as a gift from a friend for our 25 Wedding Anniversary. They bloomed shortly thereafter and where beautiful, with their delicate white blossoms. We have a puppy that I thought had urinated somewhere on the tile floor. I cleaned the kitchen tile and the hardwood floors thinking that was where the smell was coming from until my husband figured out it was the plant. We put it in the dining room away from the central location of our house. My kids told me to never get a plant like that again. They have such beautiful flowers though. The blooms are almost spent and we were lucky to not have any droopiness. Can I dry them out like tulips and put them in a dark place and try to force them again for next year or should I just throw them away? I hate to throw anything away. I live in Cleveland, so planting them outside in the frozen snow is not an option.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Jill to A Way to Garden and to the world of blog-commenting. I’m so flattered it is here that you made your first comment. As for the paperwhites, I’m afraid they won’t like being forced again, so I’d toss them in your cold zone. As for blaming the puppy: exactly. Smells at least that bad to me, too. Apparently, as the others in this long stream of comments have offered, there are less-unpleasant varieties that I think each of u must seek out in catalogs next year if we plan to try paperwhites again. Hope to see you soon.

  16. chillianne says:

    I just found this blog when trying to find a site to explain the “perfume” of paperwhites. All of you are so witty and clever. Best of all, I’m not alone in this experience. Thanks to all and happy holidays 2010.

  17. Susie says:

    I don’t understand what doing the Adams Family thing is. Does it mean removing the stamens like on Star Gazer Lillies? An elderly friend gave me a bag of Paperwhites and I loathe the thing the fragrance does to my sinuses. Of course, they are Zivas and I am desperate about what to do. I am considering going out to buy one of the more friendly fragrance varieties you mention and pulling off a fake-out. Help!! I am running out of time to have them bloom for Christmas

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Susie. On “The Adams Family” TV show, the mother, Morticia Adams, used to cut the flowers off the stems before arranging just the stems in vases, I believe. I can’t have Ziva and other very fragrant ones in the house, so I’d say give them away!

  18. G.A. Wells says:

    I know this is a stupid question, but can’t find the specific answer anywhere and would really appreciate your patience in answering my question. I have some of these paperwhite bulbs that are currently blooming on my windowsill (inside) my home. It is December 29th. I live in Kentucky. I wonder when I should transplant them outside and how I should go about it. Could you please help me with these questions? Thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, GA. Generally we think of paperwhite bulbs as a forcing flower that we discard after indoor enjoyment — a florist plant, so to speak. If you lived in Zone 8 or warmer (so no winter temps colder than say 15 or 20ish degrees) you could perhaps grow them outdoors. Even there, they might sulk for a few years while they built up their energy again after being “forced” to bloom indoors out of season. The forcing types are bred for just this purpose, more than garden conditions…and again, your Zone isn’t warm enough for these tender bulbs.

  19. Hope says:

    Help! My paperwhites are tall, I am ok with that. But they started to bloom and then just stopped! Only one flower barely exposed, and a lot of other buds not doing anything!

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