Forcing Fun: Tropical Narcissi

WHY DID I PLANT OODLES OF TROPICAL NARCISSI THIS MORNING? Well, because I want oodles of fragrant flowers to set among my holiday greens. I also wanted to put my collection of tacky whimsical Santa Claus mugs to good use. But most of all, I wanted to show you how to grow these easy bulbs, and how to keep their flowering stems small…with alcohol.

You can plant tropical narcissus bulbs in any water-tight container. The only rule is that containers be deep enough, preferably 4-5 inches, to permit enough pebbles to be spread under and around the bulbs, and thus give support to the big root masses which develop.

Need a few bulb-containing ideas? I used the following:

A blue and gold soup tureen…

A blue, square-shaped jardiniere…

A clear-glass serving dish…

A matching pair of green jardinieres (these, I think, will look great on the parlor mantel)

And five Santa Claus mugs.  I bought these many years ago, thinking they’d be fun for serving homemade hot chocolate.  In fact, they are terrific horticultural assets.  I planted one N. ‘Inball’ paperwhite per mug. These, in bloom, will be the centerpiece for my annual Christmas Dinner Party.

True, the ceramic mugs will look out of place on a table laid with crystal and silver. But when it comes to decorating for Christmas, I have but one rule: Anything goes!

And where to hide the mugs until their Christmas-debut? My little-used guestroom seemed like a good choice. I should probably turn the mugs the other way around so they can view the rose garden below.

Tips for Planting. You’ll need pebbles or some other aggregate to anchor the bulbs in place. I prefer aquarium gravel, because it is composed of tiny, polished pebbles. Unlike driveway gravel or marbles, which are only suitable for large containers, aquarium gravel works in all planting-situations. The pebbles aren’t cheap, but they can be reused year after year.

If I was a narcissus bulb, I’d want to be planted in aquarium gravel.

Fill your container half-way full with gravel (or whatever aggregate you’re using. )

Then pour water just to the top of the pebbles.

Now arrange the bulbs on their gravel bed. Never twist or push bulbs into gravel, as this might damage their basal plate. The basal plate is the flat bottom of a bulb, from which roots emerge.

Odd groupings of three, five, or seven bulbs make the most attractive displays.

Sprinkle more pebbles betwixt and between the bulbs.

This is what your final arrangement should look like.

Bring the container to a cool, dim location for a week of root-making. Or, for fastest bloom, place it in full sunlight and warmth right from the get-go. I set my tureen of bulbs on the south-facing sill in the Music Room.

Tip: If you need flowers in time for Christmas and New Year’s, be sure to plant your bulbs by mid-November.

To keep the stems from growing too tall (unstaked, they will inevitably collapse in a miserable heap just as their flowers open), give them a shot of gin: Let the roots grow for one week, then pour the water off, and replace it with five parts water to one part gin (or vodka or tequilla — any liquor that is 40-proof will do the trick).

Tip: Don’t have booze in your house? Then use 7 parts water to one part isopropyl (“rubbing”) alcohol.

I can tell you this mild cocktail really works. The plants will grow to half their normal size, but the flowers will remain just as large and fragrant as usual. As evaporation occurs,  replenish the bulbs with the same gin-mixture mentioned above, to a level that just reaches the base of the bulbs.

Be sure to move the bulbs to a less-sunny, less-warm location after the flowers open. The blossoms will last far longer in temperatures which do not exceed 65 degrees.

Here are just some of the tropical narcissus varieties I planted today:

Narcissus ‘Winter Sun’ has a light, sweet perfume. The white flowers feature a bright yellow cup.

Grand Soleil d’Or has a fruity-fragrance. Its bright orange cup is surrounded by sunshine-yellow petals. This one is pure gold, baby.

Beautiful too is Narcissus ‘Inball,’ which boasts more blossoms per stem than any other paperwhite. It’s air is deliciously-light.

Well. I hope I’ve inspired you to plant tropical narcissi for winter bloom. The fragrant flowers will remind you that spring is merely a state a mind.

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Related Posts:
How I Force Tulips for Winter Bloom Indoors
Steps to a Window Garden
Purple Poulet (Beef in Red Wine)


  1. badger gardener says:

    If you were going to plant only one narcissus, with scent being the top priority, which would you choose?

    The Santa mugs are completely awesome.

  2. Wish I’d known about the alcohol part. Mine are quite tall now, had to tie with some twine to hold together. I will change that to a holiday ribbon. I love your containers.

  3. Hi badger gardener – The strongest-scented of all paperwhites are ‘Ziva’ and ‘Ariel.’ Just one open blossom of these will perfume a room.

    Jessica – I discovered the alcohol trick several years ago, courtesy of the Bulb Research Program at Cornell University. That tiny nip of gin makes all the difference!

  4. Marjean Cline says:

    Oh, thank you SO much for the alcohol trick! Being in the Pacific Northwest without a south facing window, I so rarely force bulbs because they get so gangly. I think the alcohol will be MUCH cheaper than buying a grow-light fixture! (Although that may be something I get for Christmas this year) Does it work for other bulbs like amaryllis?

  5. Hi Marjean – Alcohol-testing by Cornell (and later, by me) was conducted only on paperwhites. I’ve tried it successfully on Chinese Sacred Lilies and the ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ daffodil, but these two are in the same tropical narcissi family as paperwhites.

    I hope you do get grow-lights. Think of all the blooming houseplants (like African violets) you’ll be able to grow!

  6. Kevin, I just wanted to wish you a very happy Thanksgiving and say that one of the things I’m giving thanks for this year is you!

  7. Kevin, you are so resourceful. The alcohol trick is really handy.

  8. Would the gin trick work for amaryllis too?

  9. Billie – The alcohol-trick has only been tested with tropical narcissi. Amaryllis is in a different family of bulbs.

  10. Am I correct that paperwhites will not bloom again after forcing when planted in the garden?

  11. Hi Sylvia – Narcissus forced in pebbles and water is usually not viable for future bloom. Only bulbs which have been forced in soil (and watered and fed until their foliage naturally withers) can be counted on for subsequent bloom in the outdoor garden.

  12. Hi Kevin The mugs are a fun idea for the bulbs. I am off to shop for bulbs and mugs to give as holiday gifts. Being a gardener, I try to do “horticultural gifts ” for friends and family!

    Enjoy the festivities of this holiday season!
    Best regards,

  13. So pretty…I can’t wait for the scent to fill the rooms in my home. The booze trick works so well!
    Did you choose a winner for last week’s contest?
    Thanks–a great log post as always.

  14. For some reason, it tickles me that your narcissus bulbs get top shelf booze.

    I think the most popular Christmas gifts I ever gave were paperwhite bulbs in pretty containers, waiting to bloom in the midst of the gray New England winter. I set them in the gravel dry, kept them cold until I gave them, and gave instructions on forcing and care. My friends and family LOVED them!

  15. I have some bulbs forcing around here in pebbles– what I wonder is…….does your water get stinky after about a week? It does here. Do you completely wash everything periodically, putting the bulbs aside and washing the rocks and bowl? I have had some of the bulbs start sprouting then turn black like rot. Some are going though and are growing well. Thank you.

  16. Mornin` Kevin, at least its still morning here in BC, Canada.
    Kevin could i also use your “Nip of Gin” trick with my Hyacinth
    bulbs, that have now been in the beer fridge since Oct 7th … ?
    Also will my bulbs start to sprout in the fridge, or after I bring
    them out and warm them up ? Hope u had a great TG dinns :)

  17. Kevin,

    The Santa mugs are absolute genius. The are festive and the perfect proportion to cluster on a table as a centerpiece.

    I will steal this idea from you for my next dinner!

  18. Thank you Kevin!! At last I have use for my set of Santa mugs. Love your site and all your wonderful hints. Never heard of the alcohol treatment for bulbs but I will definitely use that information.
    Hope yout Thanksgiving was happy and full of memories to be cherished.

  19. Nancy Shelly says:

    We had Santa mugs when our kids were little. Paint (probably poisonous!) eventually wore off so mugs were replaced for grandchildren who also love them. Are we going to see your home decorated for Christmas? Happy holidays to all!

  20. Cynna – I agree with you — the scent is spectacular! Thanksgiving bulb giveaway winners were announced on Friday. Names are at the top of the post on the homepage.

    p.gilbert – Two things you can do to keep the water sweet. (1) Add a piece of aquarium charcoal to the bowl, vase, or mug. (2) Add alcohol as described above…but only if you are forcing tropical narcissi (i.e., paperwhites).

    Lynn – I wouldn’t add alcohol to hyacinths. As for sprouting…your hyacinths might sprout while they are in the fridge. But they will definitely sprout once they are introduced (after the cold-period) to sunlight and warmth.

  21. Gay Ayyagari says:

    In one of the pictures of your narcissus I see a hanging plant with round-ish leaves. I have a rather long one. Pls. Tell me what it is and what do I do when it becomes so long. I have made several rootings from the “bulb”things on the stems and they are also growing well. Does it ever bloom?

  22. Hi Gay – The vine is Ceropegia woodii, or “String of Hearts.” Go ahead and cut the pendant stems any length you like. Mine flowers in late winter when the days begin to lengthen. The stems have grown so long (over 5 feet) that they now puddle on the floor. Time for a haircut!

  23. Oh I see exactly how this is going to go. A splash of gin for the flowers, a splash for me…splash for flowers, mixed drink for me… This is going to be the best flower watering chore ever! :-)

  24. Kevin, I have two vases already started and they are 4 inches high. Can I just add the Gin?
    Do I have to pour it off in one week and add more water and Gin? I think the bulbs and tiny stones will become displaced and right now they look really nice. Thanks.

  25. Amber – Well. Now you know my watering-habit.

    Kathy – If you can’t pour the water off without upsetting your nice arrangement, just replenish the bulbs with the gin/water mixture described above.

  26. I can’t wait to try this in my greenhouse. I like to try new things and see if I can make them work in my little greenhouse. will this work with any type bulb?

  27. Hi Kevin!
    I have been force blooming bulbs for the past two years now, but for some reason, this year, I am not having much success.

    The water is turning foul smelling and it looks as if there is some mildew or something growing in there aside from roots!

    Any idea what or why this is going on and what to do about it?

    Your words of wisdom will be most appreciated!


  28. Hi Janet B. – The alcohol-trick has only been tested on tropical narcissi. I wouldn’t use it for amaryllis or any other bulbs.

    Hi Kelly – Sounds like your bulbs are starting to rot. This can happen when there is too much water in a container. My advice is to pour the water off. If the bulbs are still firm, go ahead and replant. But make sure that water reaches only the basal plate of each bulb, as described in the above article. Otherwise, if the bulbs feel mushy, I’m afraid you’ll have to toss them.

    And…if you can get your hands on some aquarium charcoal (pet stores usually sell it), add a piece to your planting-vessel. The charcoal will keep the water from turning foul.

  29. Those are gorgeous!! I tried to grow them last year but some of them got rot and just didnt do well. Im sure I had my water level too high.. I had one hanging around (I have no clue when the bulb came from) so I just put it in soil its doing well but I’ll give it a shot of vodka in a day or two. Thanks for all your indoor plant expertise.
    I dont know how mine grow so successfully since I dont really know squat about them.. but my S/O says they do so well because I ignore them. 😉

  30. I found research online that demonstrates the alcohol trick will work for amaryllis. One person even posted a time-lapse film showing the difference. I’m trying it for the first time this year with the amaryllis I give as Christmas & host/hostess gifts.

  31. Hi Betsy T – Well, I can’t thank you enough. I watched the time-lapsed video, and both amaryllis bulbs were grown in pebbles and water (one with alcohol and water). Fascinating!! I suppose if one were to grow amaryllis in soil, a stronger cocktail would be needed.

  32. delighted to have found this tip- I buy paperwhites each fall, keep them in the fridge and take out after the holidays for winter-doldrums-bloom. I also happen to have an appalling (to me) bottle of watermelon vodka, detritus from a summer party- thinking this might be a win-win scenario! thanks!

  33. Hi Kevin;

    I have successfully forced my hyacinths in my refrigerator and they are coming up nicely, but I have noticed the flower tip is starting to bud out some, they are only 1-2″ tall, what is causing this to occur? I did add the charcoal pinch to each bulb.



  34. It’s going to be ending of mine day, but before finish I am reading this wonderful post to increase my

  35. You said any 40 proof alcohol would work. Isn’t gin and vodka etc. 80 proof?
    I am definitely doing this this year. This will be wonderful, unique gifts for me to give to family and friends. Thank you.

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