by Christian Harper, Olbrich Horticulturist
Looking for a fun project to bring a little color and fragrance to your winter holiday decor? Can't decide what to get the person who has everything on your holiday shopping list? Why not try your hand at forcing easy-to-grow bulbs? "Forcing" is a horticultural term that refers to getting plants to bloom outside of their normal seasons.
Forcing tulips or daffodils, for instance, involves planting bulbs in shallow pots, refrigerating them for approximately 12 weeks to give them their required "winter", then exposing them to light and warmer temperatures until they bloom. It's a fun but lengthy process. Fortunately, there are several bulbs that force quickly and without refrigeration. Plus, their colors and scents make them naturals for the winter holidays.
The first of these easy bulbs are Paperwhites, which are a particular type of daffodil. The ancestors of these bulbs came from warmer areas of the Mediterranean and unlike most daffodils, require no winter to sprout leaves and flowers. In fact, the instant the bulbs are planted the growth cycle is initiated. So quick is the response that merely having water touch the bottom of the bulbs will start growth, which allows for growing them on trays or in vases of pebbles or marbles. If planting in pots, place the bulb in a container of soil with most of the bulb covered. Six bulbs in a six to eight inch pot makes for a nice display. Water once to get root growth started and then only when soil is dry to the touch.
Cylindrical vases with red or green marbles make a colorful and stable platform to grow them without soil. It's fun, especially for kids, to see the white roots pop from the bulbs a few days after planting and weave their way through and around the pebbles. If Paperwhite bulbs are forced to bloom in water, place bulbs in trays or vases with pebbles or marbles on the bottom. Make sure bulbs stay upright and fill the tray or vase with water until it just touches the base of the bulb. Keep the water at this level to prevent bulb rot.
Bright green leaves of the Paperwhite grow upward, often several inches a day, soon followed by flower stalks topped by clusters of small, incredibly fragrant flowers. We like to grow them in soil, too, and ring them with colorful branches of red twig dogwood stuck around the perimeter of the pot to help support the sometimes-tipsy leaves and flowers.
'Ziva' is the variety considered easiest and most reliable, blooming in as little as three weeks after planting. Some people find the musky fragrance a little overwhelming - 'Inbal' and 'Galilee' have lighter scents. Paperwhites can be found at most garden centers or through mail-order bulb suppliers. Keep purchased bulbs dry, dark, and cool ( not refrigerated) until planting and you can pot some up every few weeks to keep yourself in fragrant blooms through the entire winter. Once the blooms are finished, you can compost the bulbs. They can't be forced again or transplanted.
Another easy bulb to grow is Amaryllis. These bulbs, the size of a tennis ball or even a softball, will grow quickly upon planting and soon produce tall, hollow stems topped by up to four huge lily-like blossoms. The blossoms range in color from white to pink to red, with salmon and near orange also available. Usually the flower stalks come up before the leaves. Larger bulbs will produce two or even three flower stalks, each with up to four individual flowers. Amaryllis are typically planted with the upper third of the bulb exposed in a pot or container just slightly bigger than the bulb. They are watered once to initiate growth, then only as needed as the soil dries out. Bottom heat will help get root growth started, but isn’t necessary.
Like Paperwhites, these bulbs are itching to start growing and blooming. Varieties listed as Christmas Amaryllis (which come from South Africa or South America) will bloom fairly reliably in as little as four weeks, making it possible to time them to be in peak bloom for special holiday events. Other Amaryllis are from Holland, and while they can bloom in 4 to 6 weeks, it can sometimes take 8 to 10 or even longer. This usually isn't a problem, as the spectacular blooms really cheer you up anytime in the depths of winter.
So there you have it - two easy, nearly foolproof bulbs to grace your homes this holiday season.
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