Last updated on December 2nd, 2011
Bulbs which can be forced into early bloom on a diet of water alone are a boon to all of us who want flowers for the house, but without the fuss and mess of soil mixtures, fertilizers, and pots with drainage holes. Almost any bulb can be grown in water (with pebbles beneath them to support roots), but the fastest to bloom are the tender kinds of Narcissi. For these don’t require a chilling period in order to sprout their fragrant bouquets at the wrong time of the year.
Paperwhites. I order mine from a bulb specialist, because the only varieties I can find locally are ‘Ziva’ and ‘Ariel.’ These two emit a musky scent that some of us love, but others find cloying. You might enjoy, as I do, the lightly-scented ‘Inball’ (above), which boasts more flowers per stem than all other Paperwhites, or ‘Winter Sun,’ remarkable for its gently-perfumed, pale-white flowers and bright yellow cup. All varieties, musky or not, make beautiful adornment for tabletops and mantels. I can’t imagine decorating for Thanksgiving and Christmas without them.
Chinese Sacred Lily, Grand Soleil d’Or. Also worth forcing into early, softly-scented bloom are the creamy white and yellow Chinese Sacred Lilies (above), and the orangey-yellow Grand Soleil d’Or daffodil. I time these for January and February displays. They make a pleasing yellow-and-green harmony for the window garden, in combination with pink and purple African violets.
Containers, Culture, and the “Gin-Trick”. You can grow narcissus in all kinds of decorative bowls and vases, and even kitchen items too, like coffee mugs (one bulb per mug) and Bundt pans. The important thing 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.
To plant, fill a container 2/3 full with polished aquarium pebbles or some other clean aggregate, and then arrange the bulbs on top. Odd groupings of three, five, or seven bulbs make the most attractive displays.
Next, add enough water to reach the base of the bulbs. Then sprinkle another inch or two of pebbles between and around the bulbs, until only their pointed tops are exposed.
To keep both Paperwhites and Chinese Sacred Lilies from growing too tall (unstaked, you can depend on them to collapse in a miserable heap just as their flowers open), I give them a shot of gin: After planting, the bulbs are set in a light or sunny window for exactly one week. Then the water is poured off, and replaced with a mild cocktail of five parts water to one part gin (or vodka — any liquor that is 40-proof will do the trick).
This booze-and-water-business really works. The plants grow to half their normal size, but with flowers just as large and fragrant as usual. As evaporation occurs, I always replenish the bulbs with the same gin-mixture, to a level that just touches the base of the bulbs.
When will they bloom? Well, that all depends on when your planting is made. The nearer to the bulb’s natural bloom-time in spring, the faster the flowers develop. Consequently, if you want them for Thanksgiving, as I do, plant your bulbs the first week in October. For Christmas flowers, plant in mid-November. January and February arrangements generally take 5 weeks; after March, fragrant perfection occurs in only 21 days. (I discard my bulbs once their flowering days are over. They are tender-types not hardy in my zone 5-b garden.)
Why not force a few narcissus bulbs for your own winter enjoyment? Or, plant a few bowls of bulbs for friends. They make wonderful Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s gifts. Anyway, I enjoy receiving them!
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