Like Andrea, I’ve always thought that forcing bulbs sounded like an awfully cruel thing to do to a defenseless flower. The older I get, though, the meaner I get. This holiday season, I’m sadistically torturing bulbs until they yield their flowery secrets. The Grinch has nothing on me!
I bought two packages of paperwhites and begun forcing the first batch in early October. I chose paperwhites for their scent (which I had previously only read about) and their absence of a need for a chilling period. For Thanksgiving blooms, I nestled four bulbs in a small pot filled with potting soil. I watered them and put them in a dark room.
According to the absolute font of knowledge (the internet), I should have watered the bulbs weekly until they developed root systems and began to sprout leaves (after roughly 3 weeks). At the one-week mark, I neglected to even check on the bulbs, let alone water. At the two-week mark, I happened to enter the coal cellar for another purpose and nearly shrieked at the pale green tentacles emerging from the pot. After a moment, I realized that I was not looking at a space creature, but paperwhite shoots. My horror gave way to pity for the anemic leaves. I mercifully moved them to our sunny, but cool (50 degrees), sun room.
Once in the sun room, the shoots greened up. I rotated the pot every few days to combat phototropism. I watched the pot as the leaves grew and grew and grew and grew. I had no idea that paperwhites grew so tall! (The height explains why the paperwhites decorating one of the featured homes in the November Better Homes and Gardens issue were tied up with twine. I assumed the homeowner was engaging in bondage play, when actually the plants just have a tendency to flop.)
Swollen buds eventually appeared among the thin leaves and the first flower emerged on Thanksgiving day. I eagerly sniffed the bloom and was, at first, dismayed by the strong, not-so-sweet fragrance. To those who haven’t smelled paperwhite blooms, I find them reminiscent of lilacs, with a heavy, almost musky undertone*. The scent is literally heavier than air and wafts downward. After overcoming my surprise at so raw a fragrance emerging from the delicate cups, I began to enjoy it.
The blooms are irrepressibly cheery and I smile every time I pass by. I’ve got another pot forcing in the basement and I’ve ordered white hyacinths to chill and force as well. I’ll never spend another winter without forced blooms brightening up our home. The pleasure they bring is worth the pain of forcefully inducing the bulbs to bloom out of season.
*In fact, paperwhites belong to the “heavy group” of fragrance, which includes blooms such as lilies, jasmine, and tuberose. The “heavy” component of the scent is due to the presence of a chemical called indole. Indole in its purest form smells like rotting meat. (Indole contributes heavily to the scent of skunk cabbage.) In small doses, and combined with floral notes, indole gives perfumes a seductive aroma. Some people find indole notes offensive, but I adore indole-laced perfumes, such as Michael, by Michael Kors.
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