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Forced bulbs for holiday decor

By Guest Columnist Gary R. Bachman

Forced bulbs for holiday decor
It is easy to force paperwhite daffodils to bloom indoors. The second and third paperwhites from the left were given a mixture of alcohol and water, which kept them shorter and more manageable.

My favorite definition of a horticulturist is paraphrased as “We make plants do what we want, when we want them to do it.”

A couple of seasonal items found in garden centers that are perfect examples of forcing bulbs -- making plants do what we want and when we want it -- are amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs. These are fun and easy holiday plants, and it’s amazing to watch them grow.

The amaryllis with its beautiful and big funnel-shaped flowers are so popular that the National Garden Bureau named 2022 the Year of the Amaryllis. You can buy the bulb by itself or pick up a kit that has everything you need.

The planting and care instructions are easy. Use a good container mix, which is provided if you buy the kit. Plant with the top third of the bulb exposed. Water sparingly, as the amaryllis doesn’t require much. Place it in a bright window but not in direct sunlight when the flower stalk starts to grow, water as needed. Don’t allow the pot to dry out. Once the flower starts to fade, remove the stalk and allow the leaves to grow and store carbohydrates for next year.

If you’re in south Mississippi, you can move these bulbs to the garden in the spring. I remember several years ago throwing out an amaryllis bulb into my back flower bed, and it came back on its own for several years, blooming in early summer.

A new-to-me way to grow this plant for the holidays is to use waxed amaryllis bulbs. Believe it or not, everything that an amaryllis needs is in the bulb. A waxed bulb doesn’t need to be watered and will produce beautiful, care-free flowers.

Paperwhite daffodil bulbs produce multiple flowers that are very fragrant. You grow these plants by following the same instructions as with the amaryllis bulbs. The downside of growing paperwhites is that the flower stalks and foliage tend to be quite leggy. Their abundant flower production makes them top heavy, so support is needed.

An old technique that was proven in the lab by my old masters’ degree advisor is to water paperwhites using a dilute solution of cheap alcohol. The alcohol interferes with water uptake and results in shorter, more stable foliage and flower stalks. They grow about one-half to one-third shorter when you use this trick. Make the watering solution by diluting one part cheap alcohol to seven parts water. A friend of mine uses cheap gin, but I use cheap vodka because cheap gin is still too good to waste on a paperwhite.

If you’d like more information on forcing bulbs, check out our Southern Gardening TV segment,

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Gary Bachman is an Extension and research professor of horticulture at the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi. He is also the host of the popular Southern Gardening television and radio programs.

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