Boo hoo, winter is here, but at least you get to decorate the house for the holidays. What happens after that? A little time spent forcing bulbs in containers in the next few weeks can transform winter’s second half as various flowers take their turn in a bright windowsill. Here’s the scoop in my four favorite bulbs for forcing indoors in winter: amaryllis, paperwhite narcissus, freesias, and hyacinths.
6 Weeks to Bloom: Amaryllis and Paperwhites
Widely sold at retail stores, amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus will burst into
bloom only a few weeks after they are planted. Huge amaryllis blossoms light up any room, while daintier paperwhites are famous for fragrance. The two are sometimes planted together, but it’s best to handle them separately. You can easily bring amaryllis back into bloom for several seasons, while paperwhites will lose their mojo after one bloom cycle and are usually not cold hardy enough for transplanting outdoors.
In addition, you may not like the musky sweet scent of your paperwhite bulbs forced indoors. They have been called the cilantro of the flower world because perceptions of the same scent vary from sweet to sickening among different people. To try them for yourself, simply root a few bulbs over pebbles arranged in a jar, with water added to almost touch the bottom of the bulbs. Let them root in a cool place for two weeks, then move to room temperature with bright light. Researchers at Cornell University found that amending water with a little alcohol when forcing paperwhites keeps them from becoming long and leggy. One jigger of gin, vodka, whiskey, rum or tequila to 7 jiggers of water yields a solution that, when used in place of water, will reduce the height of forced paperwhites by a third, without affecting blooms.
Big amaryllis bulbs have the cells for their spectacular blossoms neatly arranged and ready to grow, so all you must do is help them break dormancy. Plant the bulbs high in individual containers, leaving one third of the bulbs above the soil line. Lightly moisten the soil and place the planted pot in a cool, dark place such as a seldom-used closet or basement for about 3 weeks, or until the strappy leaves or buds begin to show. Move to bright light, increase water, and your bulb should produce at least one big bloom spike, or possibly two or three. When the plant finishes blooming, move it to an out-of-the-way place to grow as a houseplant until the last frost passes. When grown through summer outdoors and allowed to dry down to dormancy in the fall, amaryllis bulbs can be brought back into bloom for many years.
10-12 weeks to bloom: Freesias
Widely grown as cut flowers in cool European climates, freesias are fun bulbs to force indoors in winter. Clusters of fragrant tubular flowers appear 10 to 12 weeks after planting, and continue into early spring. Freesia fragrance is sweet and airy, with fruity notes of citrus and strawberry, and everyone likes it.
Native to South Africa, freesias grow from corms, which can be round or oblong, depending on variety. They begin growing roots immediately after being planted shoulder to shoulder in pots, their tips well covered with soil. Let them root for about 6 weeks in a cool spot with temperatures between 50-55°F (10-13°C), such as an unheated basement or porch. Move them to brighter, warmer digs after the pointed leaves emerge, and plan to stake the plants to keep them upright.
16-18 weeks to bloom: Hyacinths
In Persian lore, hyacinths are the flowers of the spring equinox, which will come on March 20 in 2022. This leaves you just enough time to chill hyacinth bulbs in your refrigerator for 12 weeks (mark your calendar!) away from apples and other fruits, which give off ethylene gas that can cause the flowers inside the bulbs to fail.
Plant the chilled bulbs in containers in early spring, or force your hyacinths in water in a vase or hyacinth jar. The big, fragrant blossoms will appear about three weeks after the bulbs are pulled from the fridge. When transplanted outdoors after the flowers fade, forced hyacinths that are not eaten by critters may come back and rebloom for several seasons.