Flower bulbs are one of my parents’ favorite holiday gifts and something that they look forward to receiving each year. I’m not sure which they enjoy more: watching them grow or the ultimate flower display. Sharing the project with friends and family is no doubt part of the appeal, too.
Amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus are the easiest spring-flowering bulbs to trick into winter bloom because they don’t need any special treatment. Just plant the bulbs and step back! Potted amaryllis are hard to beat for the “wow” factor when their huge 5-7″-wide blooms open. Deep red varieties are Christmas favorites, but white, pink, striped, and even yellow-green are popular, too. We pot up the bulbs in 6-8″-wide pots filled with fluffy houseplant potting mix, leaving the top third of the bulb exposed. After tucking the fleshy roots into the soil, we water the pots then wait for green growth to appear. Usually, the tip of a leaf or flower bud begins to peek from the top of the bulb within two to three weeks. Either one may show up first, but both will eventually grow. Once they get going, the flower stalks grow so rapidly that you can almost see them expand! The first flowers open three to four weeks after the stalks begin to emerge. Paperwhites burst into bloom even sooner, often flowering within three weeks of planting.
Hyacinths are another gratifying bulb to force for winter bloom and they don’t even need to be planted in soil. I gave my parents a set of hyacinth forcing vases that support the bulbs above a water reservoir. The roots grow down into the water and the bulbs stay dry. Unlike amaryllis, however, hyacinths need a chilling period of 13 to 15 weeks to trick them into thinking it’s spring. Preconditioned bulbs, which are available from some suppliers, have already been chilled, but conditioning your own is very simple. Add water to the forcing vase so that it will be just below the bottom of the bulb, then set the bulb on top. Put the vase and bulb in the back of the refrigerator, adding water as needed until it’s time to take it out of the cold treatment. When the chilling period is over, set the vase near sunny window and expect to smell a breath of spring in two to three weeks when the fragrant flowers open.
Not everyone on my Christmas list enjoys the process of preparing bulbs for forcing, but they still like the midwinter flowers. These lucky folks may find a basket of ready-to-grow daffodils and tulips in a FedEx box on their doorstep in December. Shhh, it’s a surprise!
For a list of best hyacinth varieties and more detailed instructions for forcing them, see the article at the North Carolina State University website.