A force of nature: coax bulbs for holiday blossoms

November 29, 2008|By McClatchy-Tribune

And you thought gardening was for gentle souls. What about forcing bulbs to bloom when they're trying to sleep?

In the case of paperwhites and amaryllis, don't fret. They don't sleep.

Unlike spring-blooming tulips, hyacinths, crocuses and most daffodils, these holiday favorites don't need to chill out before rooting and flowering. By simulating the conditions of their home climates - the warm Mediterranean Basin for paperwhites, tropical South America for amaryllis - you can persuade them to blossom right now, on your windowsill, without weeks of sleepover in the fridge.

"Paperwhites and amaryllis are absolutely the easiest, a no-brainer," says Sue Chapin of Wynnewood, Pa., who has been forcing bulbs, especially amaryllis (Hippeastrum), for eight years and entering them in Philadelphia Flower Show competitions for four.

"My little grandsons can grow them, and they're 7 and 10," says Chapin, past president of the Garden Workers, a suburban Philadelphia garden club.

If you're not too spooked by that declaration, you might consider potting up some paperwhites and amaryllis for Hanukkah or Christmas gifts. Now's the time to get started: Just buy some bulbs, pop them in pots, and you'll have blooming paperwhites in four to six weeks, amaryllis in six to eight.

"I love to watch them grow and come to life," Chapin says, "and there's nothing like seeing something flower in the middle of winter when snow and ice are on the ground.

"It's pure enjoyment," she says.

In her 1999 book Forcing, etc, Katherine Whiteside calls the dainty paperwhite "the prom queen of the narcissus clan," whose longtime popularity derives from good looks, "a sturdy disposition and easy likability."

For all that floral delicacy, paperwhite bulbs are chubby-cheeked and covered in crinkly paper tunics that flake off in your hands. And paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta) aren't just white anymore. Grown mostly in Israel and the Netherlands, they come with white petals and yellow cups, bicolor petals, all golden yellow or bright yellow with orange cups.

Ziva is the classic, pure-white paperwhite. It's also the fastest to bloom, 30 days, and the strongest-smelling. A mixed blessing, to be sure.

Chapin's not a huge fan of the Ziva fragrance, which some have likened to musk, burnt wires or worse. But it doesn't bother Walt Fisher of Bryn Mawr, Pa., dubbed "the Botticelli of Bulbs" two years ago in James Dodson's book Beautiful Madness: One Man's Journey Through Other People's Gardens.

Fisher learned to force bulbs at age 13, while working part time in a greenhouse in the Northeast. Since 1979, he has won more than 500 Flower Show ribbons. But he's sworn off paperwhites.

"My children complained that they stink," says Fisher, a retired AT&T executive.

There are better-smelling paperwhites out there, like Israel, Inbal and Nazareth. Still, Sally Ferguson, director of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center in Danby, Vt., thinks all this talk of stinky stuff is beside the point.

"The pleasure of paperwhites," she says, "is that you generally start growing them about six weeks after you've had to put your summer lawn furniture away and mulch your perennials and bulbs, right at the moment when you think, 'God, April is so far away.'

"Then you can plant these bulbs indoors and within days you see roots and growth, and it just makes your heart feel good," she says.

Amaryllis used to be pretty straightforward. They were big and red.

Art Wolk, award-winning bulbster from Voorhees, N.J., calls them "Circus Maximus" for their fast-forward growth spurts and softball size. You can literally watch them shoot up inches a day, and while not all of the bell-shaped blooms are as big as your face, many are.

"Everything about amaryllis is huge," Wolk says, nominating this as the plant most likely to impress your nongardening friends.

Most amaryllis come from the Netherlands and South Africa. Over the past 15 years, the market has seen much more variety - bigger, smaller, taller and many more colors, according to Ferguson.

Besides the single-flower types, there are doubles with multiple petals and more exuberance. Besides the familiar flat-out red, color choices include velvety red and deep ruby red, pumpkins, yellows and apricots.

Stems are longer and stronger for cutting. There's even a fragrant amaryllis called "Jewel" that's small and ruffled. There are exotic, spidery varieties, called cybisters, which have slimmer, orchid-type flowers.

"Sophisticated and mouthwatering," Ferguson calls them, and they're a bit on the wild side, with their luscious pairings of celadon and magenta or green and white stripes with a rosy blush.

"They're very romantic, very turn-of-the-century," says Ferguson, who grows amaryllis in waves through the winter.

Which is a great idea, given that April is so far away and given the old saying: You can't make a date with a bulb. You can plant and water and follow the protocols, but you can never be absolutely sure when your bulbs will flower.

It's a little like parenting.

If you're lucky, the rewards are great. You just have to be patient and wait long enough to reap them.

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