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. chris says:

    sounds like a damned poor use of gin to me

    like you, paperwhites are not on my list of sources of winter cheer. a suitable such list for me would include:

    1. bulldog gin (see above)
    2. listening to the scrunch while snowshoeing
    3. getting acclimated to the cold over the course of the first few weeks of winter so i can go out wearing just an old sweater or canvas jacket (it’s a guy thing)
    4. cutting nasty brush and briars that i wouldn’t be able to get into in the other seasons when they are in full leaf
    5. making soups and stews
    6. eating soups and stews
    7. give thanks that i didn’t lock in the fuel heating price last spring that was on offer
    8. making lists (not enough time in other seasons)
    9. remembering how when i was young i thought it was so cool that you could see your breath when it is cold
    10. looking into the fire and watching the flame ballet

  2. Kitt says:

    Huh. Booze! Who knew?

    I’ll have to try that, but with one of those non-stinky varieties (supposedly there are some out there). I’m with you on not liking their funk.

  3. susan says:

    I have not yet planted my bulbs, now I will ad the gin to the mix. I do not mind the smell for a couple of days, but then it is to much. So this recipe for planting sounds great.

  4. margaret says:

    Sounds like we can start an AA Chapter here with this group, self included. Ha!

    Thanks to you all for the tips, and Chris, Chris, Chris: Oh, my. Watch out or you will become a columnist here on AWTG and I will just retire for real this time, not pretend-retirement in which I work more than I did when I worked for Martha even.

    Welcome to Jill, Theresa, Gaia, and hello again to baby sister-friend Anastasia. If you think Chris is a clever and funny one (and he certainly is) perhaps you will get a giggle over at her place, too. Like right here.

  5. Kathy says:

    Sign me up for the AA chapter. I had given up on paperwhites but with the above information (gin included) I’ll try again. Great list, Chris.

  6. Amy says:

    Love the response from Chris :)

    I’m growing amaryllis for the first time, and was very tempted to pick up paperwhites too. I’ll have to remember this tip if I try them.

  7. Debbie says:

    I would try this method before you pot up a lot….. Your old boss Martha suggested this and I tried it last year with poor results! I found that the blooms were very weak- kind of translucent. Not all the buds bloomed and they faded very quickly. I force mine in pebbles, which I like but I start them in a darkish place. When they start to grow, then I put them in a sunny spot, but not too sunny as they grow too fast and/or fade quickly.
    I adore paperwhites especially the smell!!!
    Good luck ;-D

  8. margaret says:

    Welcome, Debbie. Ha! My old boss Martha…you know, it’s very nearly my first anniversary of living up here on my own and being unemployed. So a timely phrase indeed that you use.

    I will watch out for drunken bulbs; maybe a weak solution and the early dark treatment you say will help enough without having them get a hangover of unsightly translucent blooms. Hmmm…

  9. chris says:

    @ margaret, thanks but this is your show, and you do it well

    but i was interested in my immediate response to your usage of of the term “winter cheer”; i realized how much chagrined i was that i can’t do gardening in the winter as a source of cheer (unless i am just doing fall cleanup way late), how much gardening constitutes a reliable source of cheer for me in season, and all this sort of led me to consider what the hell were my sources of cheer in the winter

    and if you think of it, the exercise of clarifying for yourself what cheer the winter brings you is much more important in the winter than any other season

  10. Tammy says:

    Just love this blog. Am so relieved we can use rubbing alcohol and not have to “waste” the good stuff. I am intrigued however and will probably try this. (thank you Margaret, had never heard of this)
    The flopping or “hanging over” of paperwhites is very annoying, but not worth my gin. Perhaps they have already been into my stash and is the reason they are “hungover” :)

  11. Nell Jean says:

    My favorites are the little contraptions devised of bamboo stakes and raffia to tie up the hangovers.

    In this climate, paperwhites grow right well out of doors, blooming in late January or early February.

  12. margaret says:

    Welcome, Nell Jean. Yes, have tied them up some years like that, too. I am fascinated how well the ones I unpotted and put out for Buddha are faring–not missing a beat.

  13. Kat says:

    Hmmm…I too have had my battles with paperwhites. Too cold here in WI to put them outside and the fantasy of the paperwhites never seems to match the insipid reality.

    This year I think I am going to sit down and use that vodka to toast my strong-stemmed, non-stinky, vibrantly red amaryllis ‘Grand Cru’. And we’ll all be the happier.

  14. Bobster says:

    Another way to combat the floppiness is to give the roots a good headstart.

    I pot mine up and put them in a cool dark place with their first drink of water and leave them for about a week and a half.
    The soil and water cue the roots to start growing, but without light the leaves don’t develop as quickly. With a big healthy root system they don’t tend to flop over as much.

    I’ve gotta mark down on the calendar when I planted them and where…not something you want to forget.

    Margaret, where did you speak in RI?

  15. vicki says:

    My solution to stinky paperwhites was to abandon those from Israel…the ones that now dominate the market. Scouring Brent & Becky’s catalog a few years ago, I found the “old time” paper whites in those pages and they are sweethearts. ‘Chinese Sacred Lily,’ Grand Soleil d’Or and the incredibly floriferous ‘Golden Rain’ have the marvelous fragrance I remember from childhood.

    I also talked with Brent about the problem, asking him why they now stink when I’d grown paperwhites decades ago that did not stink. He was the one who informed me that the Israeli hybrids are the stinky ones. He also claims that one of the newer Israeli introductions, ‘Inbal,’ has a pleasant fragrance. Unfortunately, ‘Ziva,’ the stinkiest of them all now seems to dominate the market.

  16. margaret says:

    @Bobster: Spoke at Blithewold in Bristol, RI.

    Welcome, Vicki. Great tip. I knew I had read about less-fragrant varieties, and I could not recall where. Thanks for this.

  17. jane gross says:

    i’m a paper white junkie, so don’t come visit if you hate the smell cuz they’re in every room of my house; the only sweeter perfume would be gardenia or jasmine. my solution to tall & droopy? tie them loosly in place with a silk ribbon. and cut the droopiest of the droopy, which will escape the ribbon, for bud vases.

  18. I did not read every comment here so maybe someone mentioned that the NYTimes did a story where they tested the theory and it’s an urban garden legend. I love the fragrance but what I usually do is put the paperwhites in the front hall. You enter to a blast of warm air and fragrance like a greenhouse and just walk through it. Our botanic garden (Olbrich in Madison WI) puts twigs of red dogwood in their pots of paperwhites to hold up the stems which is what I now do.

  19. vicki says:

    Oops. I didn’t intend to mislead you…these older varieties are intensely fragrant…but sweetly so rather than yucky-musky.

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