Project: Tipsy Paperwhites

Today we are happy to welcome Meryl to the blog to share a fun plant project with all of you. Read on to find out about how to make your annual planting of paperwhites into a cool science experiment that everyone can learn a little something from!

 

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Every year since I’ve had my own home, I’ve always planted a pot of paperwhites for the holidays.

Paperwhites are bulbs from the Narcissus family, but—unlike their daffodil cousins—they don’t need a cold period to bloom.  As such, you can plant a few in a pot with pebbles or soil, water every few days, and 2 or 3 weeks later you have flowers.  With blooms that sweetly scent an entire room and last for weeks, they’re a lovely indoor gardening project when my outdoor garden is snowbound.

This year, though, in addition to enjoying their beauty, I’m also turning my paperwhites into a science project.

 

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One problem that plagues paperwhite growers is how leggy the flower stems can get.  Towards the end of their growing period, the flowers usually have to be staked-up so that they don’t topple over.

In 2005, a professor with Cornell University’s Flowerbulb Research Program figured out a solution to this problem—get your paperwhites tipsy!

Not even kidding.  The Cornell researchers watered their bulbs normally for about 1 week, or until they started to develop shoots.  Once the bulbs had begun growing, the researchers replaced the water with a  diluted alcohol solution.  While it doesn’t effect the flowers, giving the paperwhites alcohol stunts the stem growth by reducing water uptake.  The result?  Beautiful, but shorter, paperwhites.

 

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This year, I’m replicating the experiment at home.  I’ve planted three pots of paperwhites as follows:

Growing Medium
Watering Solution
Pebbles
Plain Water
Potting Soil
Plain Water
Potting Soil
Diluted Rubbing Alcohol

(Clever horticulturists will notice that I’ve left one combination of variables out—pebbles + diluted alcohol.  I tried that a few years ago and didn’t have much luck, so I’m skipping it this time for the sake of space.  If you have a bigger windowsill than I do, though, knock yourself out!)

I plan to track my paperwhites’ growth so that I can find out for myself what the best way to plant and care for them is in the future.

If you’d like to do a similar experiment, here’s the how-to.

Tipsy Paperwhites

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What you’ll need

•    3 4-inch pots, or similarly sized containers
•    A tray (to put the pots on so that any furniture underneath doesn’t get wet)
•    9 paperwhite bulbs
•    potting soil
•    small pebbles
•    plant markers or masking tape
•    rubbing alcohol or hard liquor (gin, rum, vodka, tequila—anything but wine or beer)

What to do

If your pots have drainage holes in the bottom, cover them in all three pots with a large pebble.  Then, fill the pots 2/3 full with your growing medium (pebbles or water).  Add 3 bulbs to each pot, then top the pots off with growing medium.  The bulbs should have their “noses” sticking out, but their bottoms covered.

Using plant markers or masking tape, label each pot according to how you plan to water it.  Put the pots on a tray in a sunny window, and water with plain water each day.

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Once the bulbs start to put out shoots, mix your diluted alcohol solution.  According to the Cornell researchers, the bulbs need a solution that’s between 4-6% alcohol.  For standard rubbing alcohol, that translates to about 1 part alcohol to 10 parts water.  For hard liquor you’ll have to do some math depending on the percent alcohol of what you’re using.  As a start, for a 40% distilled spirit, you would use a 1-to-7 ratio.

Then, begin watering the bulbs you’ve designated with the alcohol solution.  Continue to water the other bulbs with plain water.

Observe and measure them as they grow.  Are the tipsy bulbs really staying shorter?  Do the blooms pop open at the same time?  Do they last as long?

Then, put your notebook down, close your eyes, and take a deep inhale of the scent.  Happy winter, friends!

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Meryl Carver-Allmond writes about chickens, babies, knitting, gardening, food, photography, and whatever else tickles her fancy on any given day at My Bit of Earth.
 
 

5 comments… add one

  • Wendy N November 14, 2013, 6:38 am

    Interesting. Can’t wait to see what happens.

  • tamara November 14, 2013, 7:20 am

    I’ve never heard of paperwhites…must do a search. It’s always lovely to have flowering plants inside the house during the cooler season. Think I may have to make a visit to the gardening centre!

  • Kim November 14, 2013, 7:59 am

    We just planted ours yesterday. Interested to see how this little experiment works out.

  • KC November 14, 2013, 4:08 pm

    This is really fun! I can’t wait to see how it turns out! :)

  • warren c. roosen December 9, 2016, 6:23 pm

    If you pore out the water and replacing with alcohol solution using stones, marbles for a planting medium how do you handle the soil just pour the solution in the soil. For me that was not made clear.

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