How to prevent your “Ziva” Paper White Narcissi from falling over

At first glance the title and subtitle of this blog seem contradictory.  After all, alcohol is supposed to make you light headed, not steadier on your feet!  However academic research by the Flower Bulb Research Program at Cornell University headed by Dr Miller has shown that when used responsibly, alcohol can actually be the perfect solution to keep upright those fast growing indoor bulbs such as paperwhites.  These bulbs often grow very fast and very tall, but then unfortunately all too often tip over just when the flowers start to appear. 

Unlike most other bulbs for forcing, paperwhites “Ziva” bulbs do not require a cold period.  With a little water the roots usually form within a week and the multiple white flowers with their heady fragrance appear within 3 to 4 weeks.  The bulbs are simply planted in soil, or more commonly in (transparent) decorative bowls with gravel/stones and water.  We prefer stones and water in a transparent bowl instead soil in a pot for several reasons:

-        The bulbs and their roots themselves are decorative (as are the stones)

-        You can better monitor the water level

-        A nicely presented bowl planted with paperwhites makes for a great (Christmas) present

A common problem with forcing paperwhite bulbs, is that because they grow so easily, they must usually be staked or otherwise supported just about the time they start to flower.  This usually doesn’t look great.

Rather than staking or tying a rope around the stems when the paperwhites reach their tipping point, turning them into drinkers is a much more efficient and attractive way to keep them upright.  Alcohol (diluted and in small doses) stunts the growth of the stems and leaves, yet leaves the flowers untouched.  Properly used, the diluted alcohol will keep the paperwhite stems 25-35% shorter, by making it harder for the plant to take up as much water.  See the result in the image on the right (bulbs on the left have only had water, bulbs on the right have had a small amount of alcohol added to the water):

Here are 4 simple steps for forcing your (shorter) paperwhite bulbs:

1.        Unpack your bulbs and clean them slightly by gently brushing off any loose/dead brown skin (do not overdo this as that might damage the bulb)

2.        Plant the bulbs in a bowl on top of (decorative) gravel, stones or marbles.  Perhaps add some more gravel to help keep the bulbs in place, but keep their noses sticking up out of the gravel.

3.       Add some water (to just below the base of the bulb)

4.       After approximately one week (once the roots have formed and a the shoots are about 3-5cm long), drain the water and replace it with a 5% alcohol solution, again to just below the bulb base.  Without resorting to high school maths books, this means 7 units of water to 1 unit of hard liquor (think gin, wodka, whiskey, rum, tequila or other 40% distilled liquor).  Beer and wine are no good, as the sugar will harm the bulbs/plants.

It is important to note that like humans, bulbs also need to drink responsibly.  The Cornell research has shown that with any alcohol solution over 10%, your beloved paperwhites will suffer an alcohol overdose and at 25% the alcohol becomes very toxic.

Please click "play" on the video below, which was posted by UK garden writer Dawn Isaac, to watch a presentation on how to plant and serve alcohol to paperwhites.




So let me close with some advice which may also seem somewhat contradictory coming from someone who wants to sell bulbs: when buying Ziva paperwhite bulbs, please by all means buy more than one pack, but don’t buy too many as you would like to keep some of the liquor to yourself this Christmas!

If you would like more information or ideas on using daffodil bulbs or other spring bulbs for your garden, then please send us and email at or visit our website at