The holiday season is ripe with choices for indoor plants. Poinsettias, cyclamen, Christmas cactuses and florist hydrangeas are all at their peak, and they can be found at the garden shop or often alongside the cheese and bread at the local grocery store.
Often found as well are blooming paperwhites and amaryllis, as many people enjoy these bulbs as holiday decor and centerpieces. True gardeners know that these bulbs aren’t just for Christmas time, though, as many bulbs can be grown and forced to bloom throughout the winter months.
Let me just say that I love the term “forcing bulbs.” It implies power over something that is normally dictated by Mother Nature and can make a gardener feel like a king. In reality, it’s really not that big of a deal, but I do momentarily enjoy the power-trip feeling that forcing bulbs allows me.
Forcing refers to encouraging a bulb to bloom before it normally would. To force a bulb, you just need to trick it into thinking it has spent the winter outside — best accomplished by chilling the bulbs in the fridge. Different bulbs require different chill times, anywhere from two to 15 weeks.
Spring blooming bulbs are great to force because the bulbs are readily available throughout the fall and early winter. We also just need a little bloom and fragrance during the winter, too. Daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, crocus and grape hyacinths are all good choices.
A seasoned gardener knows how to force for continual bloom, making sure to chill their bulbs long enough to bloom during the winter month they desire. For all other gardeners (including me), we force bulbs during the winter simply to keep dirt under our fingernails. Our forced tulips may not bloom until late March — but, by golly, at least we got to see them grow.
Paperwhites (narcissus tazetta) and amaryllis (hippeastrum) do not require a chilling time because they are not accustomed to a cold winter in their native environments. Their holiday popularity is directly related to how easy they are to grow. Amaryllis tend to bloom on their own schedule, and there’s not a whole lot of control to their bloom on our end. Paperwhite blooms, on the other hand, are very easy to manipulate and time.
The House of Plants, 507 Harvey St. in Winston-Salem has the whole gamut of holiday bloom, including pots of paperwhites and amaryllis. Danielle Mooney, a plant consultant at the House of Plants, has had many years of experience growing bulbs indoors. Mooney explained that paperwhites can be grown just in water, as no soil medium is necessary.
“We tell people to cover at least the bottom part of the bulb with water,” Mooney said. “Some people put rocks or shells to hold them up, but they don’t have to have that. If they’re done in just water, they really need a long glass cylinder, the taller the better.”
I’ve often grown paperwhites in shallow trays or dishes full of pebbles. The bulbs themselves are attractive, with their peeling, papery skin. Nestled down into the pebbles, the bulbs only require a little water to start to grow. They grow well in soil, too, but I prefer to watch the roots develop, which is possible with a glass container and rocks.
Because they can get quite tall, paperwhites often require support. This could mean planting them in a tall vase, or utilizing stakes or ties to keep them upright.
“You can wrap them with raffia or put any kind of twigs or stems in to hold them up,” Mooney said. “Even though they get tall, they can be staked with something decorative.”
Or consider sharing your alcohol with paperwhites, as it just might keep their height in check.
“One thing that people do say really encourages them to be shorter is to water them with a mixture of vodka or gin, 1-to-7 (with water). You can also use rubbing alcohol 10-to-1 to encourage them to be shorter.”
Paperwhites can be grown continually throughout the winter: Just start a new batch when another batch begins to bloom. Mooney said these bulbs can be grown indoors from December through February, or as long as your bulbs are still firm.
Although an incredibly reliable bloomer, there’s not much you can do to get an amaryllis to bloom exactly when you want it to. And that’s OK. A growing, budded amaryllis is a treat all on its own and leaves you in a constant state of anticipation for its bloom.
The House of Plants has a great selection of these large, softball-size bulbs in stock. The Susan variety has a large, bright pink bloom with a soft yellow throat. Charisma has a pink to rose red bloom with multiple flowers. Magnum offers a huge bloom with a velvety dark red bloom.
Mooney recommends budding vases for amaryllis, which are tall, wide glass containers with a concave partition for the bulb to seat. This budding vase allows roots to grow into water, while keeping the bulb dry. It is also a means of support for the tall stalks, as well as a handsome way to display the plant.
Start a few amaryllis bulbs now and you’ll guarantee yourself blooms for the drab months of January and February. Though paperwhites are usually tossed after they bloom, amaryllis can be added to your troop of houseplants and grown for years.
“After it’s finished flowering, cut the stalk off and treat as a houseplant,” Mooney said of amaryllis. “Then, in the spring, sit the pot under a tree where it gets dappled light.”
At the end of summer, you can go through a series of steps to force your amaryllis to bloom again for the holidays.
Try your hand with daffodils, hyacinths and tulips, as well. Several weeks in the fridge can be enough to force many of them. Daffodils only take two to three weeks to chill before you can force them.
Gardeners can enjoy the winter months in a green state of mind — we just have to get a little creative sometimes to see something grow. Even if we have to force the subject.