Using Alcohol For Forced Bulbs – Keeping Amaryllis, Paperwhite and Other Bulbs Upright

By Bonnie L. Grant

Waiting for spring can make even the most patient gardener antsy and anguished. Forcing bulbs is a great way to bring some early spring cheer and brighten the home interior. Forcing bulbs in alcohol is a trick for preventing floppy paperwhites and any other leggy stemmed bulb from falling over. What is the link between booze and bulbs? Read on to find out how a little distilled alcohol can help your long-stemmed flower bulbs.

Alcohol and Bulbs

Homo sapiens aren’t the only life form that enjoys a tipple or two. Strangely, bulbs appear to produce shorter, but sturdier, stems when given a nip of vodka or even rum or gin. Keeping those leggy paperwhite bulbs upright might be as simple as getting out the shot glass. The science behind the trick is actually so basic even a garden writer can explain the benefits.

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Keeping amaryllis from flopping over may be accomplished with a slender stake or skewer but there is real evidence that forcing bulbs in alcohol can achieve the same effect. Researchers at Cornell University have discovered that a bit of distilled spirits can help solidify those slender stems and produce plants with sturdier, upright posture.

How does the alcohol stiffen their spines? The secret is a diluted solution of alcohol, which will induce water stress and prevent excessive stem growth without harming flower production. Alcohol limits growth of the stem to 1/3 of the normal growth height and forces thicker sturdier stalks.

How to Keep Paperwhite Bulbs Upright (and others too)

Many of the bulbs we force in winter for early blooming develop long stems. Paperwhites, amaryllis, tulipsnarcissus and others produce their beautiful blooms on the tops of slender flower stalks, which have the propensity to bend once the heavy flowers appear.

Preventing floppy paperwhites and other bulbs is as easy as watering with a dilution of distilled alcohol. If you prefer not to sacrifice your Tanqueray or Absolut, you can also use rubbing alcohol. Using alcohol for forced bulbs requires a little know how on the ratio necessary to promote limited stem growth without killing the plant.

Distilled spirits are watered down at a rate of 1 part to 7 parts water. Rubbing alcohol needs more dilution at a rate of 1 to 11.

Method of Using Alcohol for Forced Bulbs

Using alcohol for forced bulbs starts with the same bulb starting method common for traditional starting. Pre-chill any bulbs that require it and then plant them in a container lined with gravel, glass or pebbles. Paperwhites and amaryllis are bulbs that do not need a chilling period and can go directly into the container.

Put in water as you normally would and wait 1 to 2 weeks for the stem to start forming. Once it is 1 to 2 inches above the bulb, pour off the water and start using the alcohol solution. Results are noticeable within a few days.

This simple solution will keep amaryllis from flopping over and allow you to enjoy flowers proudly balanced on the tops of those skinny stems where everyone can take pleasure in their regal beauty.

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