Winter's brightest bulbs


After the Christmas tree comes down and the wreaths are tossed, a long spell of bleak days looms ahead with nary a hint of green in sight. Fill the void with winter’s brightest bulbs and you won’t have to pine for vibrant, living color.

We have to do something to keep our spirits up…but more on that below.

The key species for winter bloom are two showy flowers – amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus. Both are easy-to-grow windowsill plants offering quick, if not instant gratification. Paperwhites can bloom in as little as four weeks and amaryllis in six.

Unlike familiar spring-flowering bulbs like tulips and daffodils, these two don’t require a long period of cold temperatures to trigger bloom. Native to regions of the southern hemisphere, they are programmed to flower in our winter months.

The paperwhite (botanically, Narcissus tazetta) bears clusters of five to 15 flowers atop slender stems. The blossoms are strongly scented and the musky fragrance is one that people tend to hate or love, with no middle ground. Modern Israeli breeders have perfected soft yellows like ‘Nazareth’ and ‘Bethlehem’ as well as pure white types including ‘Galilee’ and ‘Ziva,’ but haven’t yet produced a scentless variety.

Paperwhites can be grown in potting soil, but also do fine without; you can just set them on a bed of gravel, stones or marbles, watering only enough to keep the bottom of the bulbs moist. Containers only need to be three or four inches deep, and bulbs can be crowded together, sides touching. Keep them in a cool spot until shoots are about two inches, then move to a warmer location and watch them leap into action.

One problem with paperwhites is their tendency to grow long and lank with their stems flopping over. William Miller, director of flower bulb research at Cornell University, discovered the cure: strong drink.

He found that watering them with a dilute solution of distilled spirits (gin, vodka, whiskey, rum or tequila), caused plants to grow one-third to one-half shorter with no reduction in flower size, fragrance, quality or longevity. By inhibiting water uptake, alcohol stunts growth, just like your Mama said.

Start bulbs as usual. Wait until roots are growing and green shoots are one or two inches tall. Pour off water and use a 5 percent alcohol solution (one jigger of booze to seven jiggers of water). Don’t use beer or wine since their sugars will ferment.

The higher the alcohol content, the shorter the plants. Don’t go higher than a 10 percent solution, though, or your plants will fall into a drunken stupor. And by the way, doesn’t this make you wonder what researchers at Cornell really have in their beakers?

What we call amaryllis is a hybrid form of Hippeastrum, a plant native to the Andean mountains of Chile and Peru. The common name means “sparkling,” and you can’t argue with that, given the saturated colors of their outlandishly over-sized blossoms.

This tropical beauty was discovered by the German physician and botanist Eduard Frederich Poepping (1798-1865) during a plant-hunting expedition in Chile. The original find had scarlet blossoms and red is still a favorite color, but today’s hybridizers have bred flowers of rose, pink and white, as well as two-tones types with stripes or contrasting petal edges. Double-flowered varieties, dwarf kinds, even lightly scented amaryllis like ‘Blossom Peacock’ and ‘Jewel’ are other new creations from clever breeders.

Growing amayllis is simple. Bury the bulbs to their shoulders in potting soil, ideally in a heavy pottery container that won’t topple as heavy blooms open. Water sparingly until shoots appear, then increase amounts. No fertilizer is needed, but it’s a good idea to turn the pot daily to keep stems straight. When the plant flowers, moving it to a cool spot out of direct sunlight will prolong the life of the blossoms.

Once they get going the stems grow fast, gaining height visibly day by day until they reach 18 to 24 inches tall. You can have an amaryllis race with your friends if you like because after all, there isn’t much else for the chlorophyll-deprived to do in January. First one to get a bloom wins bragging rights or whatever prize is put in play.

With these bulbs, hold the alcohol – in hand, preferably, and propose a toast to Eduard Frederich Poepping. That will fix those friends of yours who are always citing obscure Irish proverbs or weird Russian drinking games. Winter fun is where you find it.