Short days and long nights make winter a difficult season for indoor flowering plants. This time of year, one of the easiest ways to bring flowers inside, is by forcing bulbs. There are a wide variety of bulbs to force into bloom in the low light winter months. Paperwhites and Amaryllis are two of the most popular. They do not require chilling before planting and can even be forced into bloom simply by setting the roots in water.
Amaryllis bulbs are part of the Hippeastrum family. They originate in South America and the West Indies. The flower is a large lily like flower that sits atop an 18” – 24” stem. They come in colors that range from white to pink to red. They are one of the easiest bulbs to force into bloom.
Paperwhites are part of the narcissus family. Paperwhites originate from the Mediterranean. They grow 16” to 18” tall and have small white flowers that are known for their intense fragrance.
Purchasing Bulbs: Choose bulbs that are heavy, firm to touch and do not show signs of mold. Larger Amaryllis bulbs may even produce a second stalk of flowers, extending the bloom time. If you are looking for a bulb that will bloom quickly, choose a bulb that is showing some green growth from the top of the bulb. If you look carefully, you can sometimes see the bud poking out of the top of the bulb, before it has even been planted.
Methods for forcing bulbs: The Amaryllis bulb should be soaked in warm water for a few hours before planting to rehydrate the roots. Since Paperwhites don’t have large roots, this procedure is unnecessary.
Planting In water: When choosing a container, keep in mind that the Amaryllis stems can be quite top heavy. Vases with tall sides help prevent the flower stems from tipping over. Place a couple of inches of rocks in the bottom of the container, place the bulbs root side down in the rocks. Paper whites can be placed in the container almost touching each other, root side down. Fill container with water until the water barely touches the base of the bulb. The water level must remain below the bulb; otherwise you risk the bulb rotting.
Cornell University researched adding alcohol to the water of Paperwhites. The theory was that adding alcohol would keep the stems shorter and stockier and they would be less likely to fall down. They discovered that the stems would end up roughly a third shorter than normal if you take the following steps. Start the bulbs in plain water. When roots have formed and the green shoot is 1 to 2 inches long, pour off the water and replace with a solution of 4 to 6 percent alcohol. If you are using 80 proof liquor (40 percent alcohol) that works out to one part gin (or the like) to 7 parts water. Rubbing alcohol (either 70 to 100 percent isopropyl alcohol) can be substituted: just remember to dilute it more. Beer and wine will not work, their sugars damage plants.
Planting In soil: Moisten the soil mix and choose your container. Plant the Amaryllis bulb in a pot that is only 1” to 2” larger than the bulb. Amaryllis should be planted with the upper third of the bulb above the soil line. Paperwhites look best when planted in groups. Place as many bulbs as you can fit into your pot. Cover the Paperwhites with soil up to the neck of the bulb. Water well and place in a warm spot, such as the top of your refrigerator. There is no need to water again until you see growth.
Care: Once you see growth coming out of your bulbs, water regularly. Once they start blooming, move to a cooler location to keep them blooming longer.
After blooming: Paperwhite bulbs are best discarded, as they are spent and unlikely to ever bloom again.
With some care, the Amaryllis bulbs can be kept and forced into bloom again the following year. After the bulb is done blooming, cut off the flower stem (not the leaves) leaving a couple of inches of stem. Place it in a sunny area indoors, water the plant regularly and fertilize it once a month. After the last frost, plant the bulb outside. You can keep them in their pot or submerge the pot, bulb and all, in a sunny spot in the garden. Keeping the bulbs in their pots makes it easier to move the bulbs out of the garden once it is time for dormancy. There will be no blooms at this time, just leaves that will continue to grow throughout the summer. Once October comes along; the bulb needs to go dormant. Stop watering and fertilizing and let the leaves turn brown and die back. Keep the bulbs out of the rain to start dormancy. Bring them inside before frost and store in a cool dark place that remains above freezing. They need at least 6-8 weeks of dormancy. Once they are done with dormancy, bring them to a sunny location; replace most of the soil and start the whole process over again.
Miller W., E. Finan, Root-zone Alcohol is an effective growth retardant for Paperwhite Narcissus. Hort Technology 16(2):294-296.