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Managing paper whites

December 2, 2010
By Stephanie Bethke-DeJaeghere

This is one of those times that I would like to meet a person who did some research on some problem and find out just how they got started on the idea in the first place. This one is truly one of those times. It is also appropriate at this time of the year to pass this along to you since many of us are growing paper whites (Narcissus tazetta) in our homes for holiday decorations.

Dr. William B Miller who is part of the flower bulb research program at Cornell University actually did research on these lovely flowers using alcohol to reduce the growth habit of these plants so they wouldn't flop over. Paper whites are very well known for having beautiful scented plants but they grow leggy and flop over if you don't tie them up in some manner.

Miller conducted a study at Cornell to see how much alcohol to feed to your paper whites. Used properly, your paper whites will be one-third to one-half shorter then normal but the flowers and how long the flowers last, remain the same. Your paper whites should be planted as you would normally plant them.

You may find that you are gifted a pot of these beauties and you can leave them in the pot. You would water them as normal until the roots have formed (about a week) and you see the first little shoots coming out of the bulbs. After you get to this point, pour off the water and use diluted alcohol (gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila). The solution should be around 4-6 percent. You can add 1part alcohol to 7 parts of water. This is an 8 fold dilution yielding a 5 percent dilution of alcohol. The diluted alcohol is used in place of water from this point on.

He has some suggestions to get the best out of your science experiment. Do not use beer or wine-there is too much sugar in these types of drinks. As with people, do not overdose your plant with alcohol. The research has shown that over 10 percent alcohol will cause growth problems and over 25 percent is toxic. You can also use rubbing alcohol if alcohol for consumption is not available in your home. Rubbing alcohol tends to be around 70% alcohol so you would need to make a dilution of 1 part rubbing alcohol to 10 or 11 parts of water.

So, how does this work? They don't know for sure but the researchers feel that feeding your paper whites alcohol causes water stress, where the alcohol tends to make it difficult for the plant to absorb water.

The plant will suffer just enough, for a slight lack of water, that it will reduce leaf and stem growth. It does not seem to affect flower development.

They are not sure if this will work on other plants or not, at this point.

For more information on gardening, you can email me at



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