How to 'Force' Winter Bulbs
In New Orleans we do not hunger for spring the way our Northern neighbors do. We have a bit of green and color even on the darkest of winter’s day. But there’s still something magical about those spring flowers. So during the upcoming holidays how festive it would be to add vivid colors and intoxicating perfumes to our homes!
This can easily be accomplished by forcing flowering bulbs. The term “forcing” refers to inducing a plant to produce its shoot, leaf and flower ahead of its natural schedule and out of its natural environment.
All hardy spring bulbs require a period of dormancy before they can bloom. Normally, they rest during winter, but you can simulate this winter rest in your refrigerator, porch, mudroom or garage and force the bulbs to bloom earlier.
The first step is to use only top-quality bulbs. Be sure to choose bulbs that are firm, fresh and healthy. Choose them the same way you choose your produce.
Prepare your flower bulbs by removing any areas of the roots that appear brown and withered, as these parts of the plant are dead. Snip the dead roots off with a scissors and discard.
Tulips, narcissus, hyacinths, crocus and lily of the valley can be forced into flower in late winter. Tender or tropical bulbs are easier to force because they do not require a chilling period. There are literally scores of suitable tender bulbs for indoor bloom, such as the popular amaryllis, paper whites, calla lilies and voodoo lilies.
In the 19th century, many households began growing flowers in pots and glasses. These were the days before air fresheners, and it’s thought the indoor flowers may have helped with stuffy houses.
The English were particularly fond of the hyacinth. This flower became sort of a parlor pet for pent-up Victorians. Thousands of different types of glasses, called hyacinth vases, were developed. They included unique, hand-painted vases as well as simple manufactured ones. Many now are very collectible antiques.
Hyacinth vases are designed to carry the bulb in the upper part of the vase. The lower part functions as the water reservoir. The reservoir part should be big enough to give room to the roots and supply enough water.
If you are unable to find a hyacinth vase designed for this purpose, just look for a vessel that has a top narrow enough to hold the bulb, but not wide enough that it falls to the bottom.
To force hyacinths on water, set a bulb just above – but not touching – the water in a forcing vase or other container. The vase is then kept in a cool, dark room for four to eight weeks until the root system develops. The temperature during this rooting period is critical: 40 degrees to 48 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.
Once the top begins to elongate, bring it into subdued light and warmer but still cool temperatures. After seven to 10 days, move it into bright light, but keep it as cool as you can and avoid direct sunlight.
The biggest problem forcing hyacinths on glass, is rotting of the bulb bottom that’s why you want the best bulbs available. Also too many roots and too little water will give bacterial and fungal diseases a chance to cause rotting of the roots.
“If you are looking for the easiest bulbs to force indoors - choose Paperwhites,” says Cindy Metcalf, president of Master Gardeners of Greater New Orleans. “All you have to do is put a few in a shallow dish filled with pebbles and just add water. It’s that simple. The flowers bloom within 3 to 5 weeks and will fill your home with a sweet fragrance that reminds you of springtime.”
Bunch-flowering narcissus, such as Paperwhite, can be grown in shallow pans of water filled with pebbles. Fill a shallow container with your pebbles. Then add the bulbs, packing them pretty tightly. Put the bulbs (root-side down) on top of the pebbles. Add more pebbles on top of the bulbs to prevent them from floating away. Next add water to just below the base of the bulbs. Keep in a cool, dark place and change the water every few days to keep it fresh. Then place in a sunny location.
If your blooms are sparse, the temperature was probably too warm or the sunlight insufficient for blooming. A room that’s too warm mimics summer, not spring. Don’t get discouraged; it may take a couple of tries before everything works just right.
I will admit I am relatively new to this procedure, but but this year I shall begin a new family tradition. My granddaughters and I will issue in the holidays with the beauty and magic of spring flowers.