Q: I tried to grow a few fragrant daffodils indoors in some gravel and water, but they got tall and flopped over. Is it true that you can make them grow shorter by adding alcohol to the water? If so, how much?
It’s true. Daffodils and other flowering bulbs “forced” indoors, either in gravel and water or in potting soil, usually get leggy and top heavy because of low light, low humidity and warm temperatures. But someone discovered — who knows how, or why — that adding a little alcohol to the water can stunt the flower stem elongation without harming the bulbs or flowers.
Some years ago I met William Miller, director of Cornell’s Flower Bulb Research Program in Ithaca, New York, who experimented extensively with the idea, starting out with easy-to-grow paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta). He came up with the right proportions for alcohol and water to shorten the flower stalks without killing the bulbs outright.
He found that, to a point, the higher the alcohol concentration, the shorter the plants will grow, but it is easy to overdo it and kill the plants.
Miller observed that though alcohol and water solutions greater than 10 percent alcohol were toxic to the plants, solutions between four and six percent alcohol shortened the stems of paperwhites without affecting their flowering at all.
Easy Does It
To make a five percent solution, mix one part isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) with ten parts water. If you want to waste perfectly good “hard liquor” (typically 40% distilled spirit) such as gin, whiskey, or vodka, mix together one part liquor and seven parts water.
Note: Miller found that the sugars in beer and wine didn’t do the trick for the bulbs.
Pot your daffodils or other bulbs in a well-drained potting soil and moisten it to get them started, or prop the bulbs up in a bowl with enough gravel to hold them upright and give roots room to grow, and add enough water to touch the bottoms of the bulbs.
Be advised: Wait until the bulbs have started to grow roots and shoots before starting the alcohol trick.
I once did a personal experiment, planting two containers of bulbs side by side and giving them identical growing conditions, except that one was grown in just water, the other in the alcohol and water solution. They bloomed at exactly the same time, with the same size flowers with the same fragrance, but the alcohol-treated ones had shorter roots – and very short stems.
And by the way, one year when I forced some, I had no gravel — so I
substituted more colorful Mardi Gras beads. Worked like a charm, and
what a fitting combo — liquor and party beads!
Gardening expert and certified wit Felder Rushing answers your questions and lays down some green-wisdom. You can get more of your Felder fix at www.slowgardening.net.