post-holiday cheer: alcohol for sturdy amaryllis

AREADER REMINDED ME THE OTHER DAY THAT SOME PLANTS (like their owners) enjoy a little post-holiday cheer. Similar to the tipsy (and therefore less tippy) paperwhites we’ve discussed before, amaryllis apparently also respond well to being grown in a dilute alcohol:water solution.

Mindy Arbo of The Cotton-Arbo retum—not a botanical institution, but the Massachusetts home landscape she and Dudley Cotton have shared and created since 1987, and that they open to touring visitors—wrote to remind me of this fact. (And no, that’s not a typo–they like the r to be lowercase, and separated from the Arbo.)

I first “met” Mindy when she was a subject on “RadioGarden,” Andrew Keys’s new podcast for “Horticulture” magazine. You can listen here. But their chat was not about indoor bulbs, or how using a dilute solution of alcohol-to-water in a waterproof vessel filled with enough pebbles or marbles to support the bulbs’ root systems does the trick, so that in bloom, there’s no toppling like a drunk.

Don’t believe me (or Mindy) that the alcohol does it? She recommends you watch this time-lapse video proof of how differently two amaryllis performed, set next to each other in front of the same window in the same size jars, except that one has some booze in it.

Mindy actually uses isopropyl alcohol from the drug store, at a 1:10 alcohol:water dilution, and waters bulbs growing in potting soil with it, she says, but cheap vodka would be fine. To calculate the precise amount of booze to water, depending on your choice of alcohol and what proof it is, try this Cornell pdf about pickling paperwhites. When the bulbs are standing in pebbles and the solution, it must be lower than 10 percent or can be harmful to the bulbs, Cornell says, recommending 4 to 6 percent concentration. Since Mindy pours her cocktail through soil, she gets away with the slightly stronger brew (isopropyl is 70 percent alcohol; hard liquors, by contrast, are only 40 to 50 percent).

Bottoms up? No more, if you grow your amaryllis this way, apparently.

(The old botanicals used as illustration here come from the vast vintage image collection of my friend and neighbor Susan at Shandell’s, where you can have them decoupaged onto matchboxes—a great inexpensive gift—or any number of home-décor items.)

  1. Lauren says:

    I wish I’d known about this a few months ago! I’ve got two amaryllis in urns–foliage is about a foot long and no buds ever appeared. Should I relegate them to the compost heap (aka pile of winter stuff by the back door that will make it to the composter once I can reach it again). Or cut back, bag up, and try again another time?

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