A Message from Edie Clark
March 25, 2011Not My Grandmother’s Paperwhites
My grandmother had a sunporch and around the edges, in front of the windows, she had copper trays filled with pebbles where she grew paperwhites, small white trumpet-shaped blooms emerging from bright green stalks. It seemed like a miracle to me, to see such beauty grow up out of gravel.
When I rented my first apartment, a small studio on the second floor of a brownstone in downtown Philadelphia, my grandmother came to visit – a long journey, carefully planned and bravely executed. She carried with her up the stairs and into my new home a brown bag with marble chips and four big bulbs. My first paperwhites. She also brought a wide blue bowl. “These will make you feel like you aren’t in the city,” she said as she emptied the chips into the bowl and nestled the big papery bulbs down in. She set the bowl under the kitchen faucet and turned on the tap. When the water was just visible among the stones, she carefully carried the bowl to my windowsill. “There,” she said, “you will have flowers soon, to make you think of spring.”
The bulbs gave up quickly and grew tall, then bunches of small, pure white blossoms opened, dots of bright yellow in the center of each one. My tiny apartment soon filled with that strange, exotic fragrance, not sweet, not spicy, I can’t put my finger on it – maybe musky – but distinct, nothing quite like it. I can never smell paperwhites but that I don’t think of my grandmother, her copper windowsills and her journey up the stairs with the brown paper bag in her arms.
Ever since, I can’t imagine winter without paperwhites. First thing after Thanksgiving I go to Agway and buy ten or twenty bulbs, choosing carefully. I want bulbs that are hard and weighty, ones with a bud of green pushing out of the top. At home, I prepare several bowls. I keep the marble chips, year to year, and hunt yard sales in summer for interesting and colorful bowls. A dish of bulbs just starting up make nice Christmas gifts but mostly, I want them for myself. I repeat the whole process about three times over the course of the winter, keeping my windowsills cheerful and my kitchen filled with that grandmother fragrance. On good years, I have paperwhites right through March.
Sometimes, though, in those early years, my paperwhites used to grow up so tall that I would have to tie them with a ribbon to keep them from falling over. Then one day some years ago, an older woman came for tea and, casting a practiced eye on my windowsills, she said, “You should give your paperwhites a bit of gin. That will cure them.” She was a member of a prominent garden club and I always listened to what she had to say to me about plants, indoors and out.
“Gin?” I asked. I wanted to be sure I had heard her correctly.
“Yes,” she said without so much as a smile, “when they are up about three inches, add about a half a shot glass of gin to a cup of water and give it to them. Next time you water, repeat and you’ll find that they won’t get so leggy. The gin stunts their growth and they’ll bloom more in scale with their stalks.”
So I went out and bought some cheap gin. And gave it a try. It worked like a charm. Later, I learned you can also use vodka or whiskey, tequila, even rubbing alcohol. But somehow I prefer the gin. The only trouble is, instead of that mysterious fragrance, they make the room smell slightly boozy, which can be a little embarrassing when folks come to visit. So I tell them it’s the paperwhites, which, of course, if they know anything about paperwhites, they know that’s not what they smell like. Still, I like to add the gin, it works really well. But with that nip of booze, they are definitely not my grandmother’s paperwhites.