The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Share a drink with your daffodils

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

We often celebrate the holly days with a toast of alcoholic beverages. This year don't forget to pour a glass for your flowers. From winter into spring we can purchase bulbs such as paperwhite narcissus for forcing into bloom in our homes. It's effective winter therapy for those of us who need to see something growing besides mold in the refrigerator. The flowers are cheery reminders of spring.

Bulb packaging will state something similar to "ready to flower." Bulbs are potted in soil or water. They quickly grow and flower within a couple weeks. Paperwhites are popular for their ease in growing and their heady fragrance. They are often grown in glass dishes with decorative rocks. A common problem with paperwhites, however, is their lanky growth. About the time they flower, they reach their tipping point and must be staked. Who would have guessed that alcohol could keep plants from falling over?

When your mother said, "don't drink alcohol. It will stunt your growth" she also knew something about plants. Dr. William Miller with Cornell University has found that a little alcohol will keep paperwhites from growing too tall, yet doesn't affect the flowers. The plants are 1/3 to ½ shorter with the same long lasting flowers.

Here are Dr. Miller's suggestions for turning your daffodils into drinkers.

  • Plant the bulbs in stones, gravel, marbles, or glass beads. They don't need soil at this point. Cover them just so their noses are sticking up out of the stones.
  • Add plain water. Wait about a week until the roots form and the green shoots are about 1-2 inches long.
  • Pour off the water and replace it with 4-6 % alcohol solution. Now don't let your eyes glaze over with the thought of figuring % solutions. For example to get a 5 % solution from 40 % distilled liquor such as gin, vodka, whiskey, rum or tequila add one part liquor to 7 parts water. So 1 cup liquor with 7 cups water yields 2 quarts of solution. Keep in mind the percent of alcohol in liquor listed in terms of "proof" is one half the proof. In other words 80 proof is 40 % alcohol by volume. From then on, use the alcohol solution to water the bulbs.

Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) works just as well. Beer and wine don't work because they contain too many sugars.

Plants also have to drink responsibly. Dr. Miller found that above a 10 % solution the plants suffered alcohol overdose and at 25% the alcohol was very toxic.

Although Dr. Miller is still working on why the alcohol stunts growth without affecting flowering, his theory is simple water stress. The alcohol makes it hard for the plants to take up as much water. The minor water stress reduces stem and leaf growth without reducing flowering.

It's a pretty simple process to get non-floppy plants. Right now Dr. Miller is not sure if it will also work on other indoor forcing bulbs such as tulips and amaryllis. You might want to try your own experiments. Dr. Miller's research was prompted by a New York Times reader that had used gin to water their indoor bulbs.

With some appropriate supervision to make sure they don't experiment on themselves, this could be a fun activity to keep kids busy during the winter. Just keep the 25-year-old scotch locked away.

Love gardening? Want to learn more along with a bunch of other crazy gardeners? Apply for the Champaign County Master Gardener program by November 27. Training is available as daytime classroom or online instruction. Training subjects include flowers, vegetables, lawns, trees, shrubs, insects, diseases, botany, soil, fertilizers, houseplants, and fruits. Phone (217)333-7672; http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/champaign/mg to fill out an application or email champaign_co@extension.uiuc.edu today.

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