Paperwhite in canning jar
Image: Kate Bryant

I put a single paperwhite bulb into this old canning jar on November 1st, with a handful of smooth black pebbles; it will be in flower for Thanksgiving. Sweet! Unfortunately, I didn’t give it a shot of brandy. I’ll be dousing my December batches of paperwhites in booze, for sure.

Paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus tazetta) are lovely bulbs to "force" for the holidays – they have clusters of intensely fragrant, charming white flowers and, since they don’t require cold treatment and can be "planted" in a jar of water, they’re about the easiest bulbs to start indoors.

If you’ve grown paperwhites before, you know the leaves and flowers tend to grow very long and floppy; sometimes they need to be staked, tied or otherwise bound up. Most of us, unless we’re aspiring understudies of Martha Stewart, just lean them against a wall or just turn the other way as the flowers droop down onto the table.

But there’s a solution – literally.

A study conducted at Cornell University in November 2009 showed that adding a solution of 4-6 % alcohol to the water keeps the stems stout and the flowers upright.

Read the full explanation here

Or, for quickie instructions without the explanation, skip that and just read this, directly from the study’s recommendations:

“Start your bulbs in plain water. When roots have formed and the green shoot is 1 to 2 inches long, pour off the water and replace with a solution of 4 to 6 percent alcohol. If you are using 80 proof liquor (40 percent alcohol), that works out to one part gin (or the like) to 7 parts water.

“Rubbing alcohol (either 70 or 100 percent isopropyl alcohol) can be substituted; just remember to dilute it more. Keep the beer and wine for yourself; their sugars damage plants.”

Note: I wrote in the original post that paperwhites take 4-6 weeks from planting to flower. But reading through my notes over the years, I see they usually flower in 3.5 to 4 weeks – rarely 5 or more. Bright light and steady water obviously help and they seem to produce flowers more quickly when planted in water than they do planted in pots with potting soil.