Boozing Your Bulbs

Daffodil in snow_LAH_ 004Your knees were creaking and your back was aching, but your bulbs were now nestled in their holes, safely underground, waiting for spring. All winter, with its bare branches and mono-colored landscape, you dreamed of sunshiny daffodils, pastel hyacinths, an entire palette of tulips. Then, finally, the weather warmed and the first green leaves appeared. With mounting anticipation, you checked the daily progress of those early flowering bulbs. And then—finally!—the buds appeared, the flowers opened… and flopped over.

Tulipa_DBG_LAH_0830Colorado’s Front Range is especially prone to heavy spring snows, and the wet stuff wreaks havoc on tall stems supporting heavy blooms. I keep this in mind when selecting which bulbs to plant, preferring short, sturdy flowers such as dwarf daffodils, low growing crocuses, and grape hyacinths. But there are so many more flowers I’d love to plant, if only they’d stay upright!

Forcing bulbs indoors doesn’t solve the floppy issue. I’ve tried growing paperwhites in the sunny stairwell at our old house, but even with plenty of light they still grew tall and then collapsed into an unsightly pile.

William Miller, professor of horticulture and director of the Flower Bulb Research Program at Cornell, may have solved the problem of floppy stems. After hearing about a gardener who was dwarfing paperwhites by forcing them in water spiked with gin, he decided to investigate. It turns out that just the right amount of alcohol will stunt the leaves and stems while leaving the flowers to grow to their normal size. Plus, neither their heavenly scent nor their longevity was affected.

Hyacinthus orientalis - Hyacinths_HudsonGardens-LittletonCO_20100406_LAH_1637So far, he’s only tried adding alcohol to paperwhite narcissus being forced in water, but he is continuing to pursue this line of research. Does it work on bulbs grown in containers? How about those growing outdoors in the garden? (There are obvious pitfalls with plants grown in the ground, such as controlling the concentration of alcohol in the root zone, its interaction with various types of soil, and its effect on adjacent plants and organisms such as earthworms and bacteria—not to mention explaining things to the neighbors!)

And why stop at bulbs? Botanists are continually attempting to create dwarf versions of our favorite plants. Determinate tomatoes, bush beans, and full-sized sunflowers on short stems are just a few of the successes. But wouldn’t it be easier to dwarf any plant just by giving it a martini? The advantages are obvious!

Alcohol-001Miller used a variety of products in his experiments, including white rum, gold tequila, mint schnapps, red and white wine, and beer. The sugar content of the wine and beer caused problems, but the type of hard liquor didn’t matter—they all resulted in shorter plants. Happily, you don’t have to buy an expensive bottle of booze to use on your plants; rubbing alcohol works just as well.

If you’d like to repeat his experiments at home, Miller has written up a fact sheet explaining what to do: Pickling Your Paperwhites.

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