Time to grow paperwhites, winter's blossoms of hope

January 28, 2007|By Anne Farrow | Anne Farrow,The Hartford Courant

For Gail Christie's friends and neighbors, a sure sign of winter are the wide flat pans, filled with stones and narcissus bulbs, in the large windows of her 1880 Victorian on the side of a hill in Haddam, Conn.

The recently retired art teacher and artist also grows orchids, amaryllis and lots of other plants, but her bowls of paperwhites are a treasured winter tradition.

"I did a painting of paperwhites once when I had my show of watercolor paintings, and I called it `Promises, Promises,'" Christie says. "They're the flowers that say, `Everything's going to be OK. Spring will come again.'"

Paperwhites belong to the genus Narcissus. Forcing the bulb of the narcissus into flower is one of life's easiest ways to feel like a success. Place five or six bulbs in a wide, shallow bowl lined with stones, shells or colored glass marbles; make sure the water level in the bowl just touches the very bottom of the bulb; and place it in a spot that daylight touches. Before long, you will get tall shoots of a lovely spring green and then, atop those shoots, will sprout small blossoms of purest white.

You can also force paperwhites into blossom by planting them in pots. Put 3 or 4 inches of soil in a clay pot with good drainage, then place your bulbs, pointy-side up, closely together. Add a little more soil so that the bulb is half buried, and then water regularly. The closely planted bulbs will give you a pretty display when they blossom.

The scent of the blossoms is delicate and reminiscent of jasmine, though some find it overly sweet. The blossoms will last two weeks or longer and will serve as lovely cut flowers, especially if the stems get so tall that that the bulbs begin tipping over.

There are several remedies for preventing the top-heavy plants from tipping. One method is to anchor a chopstick or sturdy ornamental branch in the stones and then tie a ribbon around the branch and the stems. Garden-supply centers and horticultural catalogs often sell bulb supports - rings of plastic-coated wire attached to a wire stalk that can be planted amid the stones.

Ornamental bulb pots, which have been popular for centuries, also work to combat the tipping effect because the roots of the bulbs knit together and keep the foliage upright.

One last remedy for keeping the plants upright sounds like an old wives' tale but was recently validated by researchers at Cornell University: A little gin in the water will keep the stems from growing so tall that they topple.

The paperwhites should be started in fresh water; then, after the roots start and the stems are a few inches tall, the water should be poured out and replaced with water and gin in a ratio of 7-to-1. Researchers found that the gin stunts the growth of the stems by one-half to one-third. Vodka, tequila, rum and whiskey have the same effect on the plant, though beer and wine do not.

Another pleasure of paper- whites, recently reported to us by some grandparents, is that children love to check on the progress of the bulbs' growth and blossoming. Because the whole cycle is just a few weeks, there is something new to see every day.

And, as Christie says, paper- whites "are the harbingers" of the spring that is sure to come.

Anne Farrow writes for The Hartford Courant.

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