Potted plants…really potted

A week or so ago my new friend Doug wondered about some gardening advice on the radio: would adding vodka to paperwhite narcissus make the flowers less “floppy?” The explanation he’d heard was that alcohol would burn the roots and reduce stem growth. Then today I received an email newsletter with the same intriguing information. This newsletter referred to a 2006 article that appeared in HortTechnology as the source of this information.

The study by Miller and Finan has generated a lot of interest in the gardening community, especially this time of year as people get ready to force bulbs for indoor blooms. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm isn’t evident among researchers. Neither the original authors nor any other researchers have continued this work; the HortTechnology paper has never been cited in any subsequent publication.

This is unfortunate – because inquiring minds want to know WHY alcohol causes narcissus stems to be shorter. Miller and Finan hypothesize that it’s simply an osmotic effect and allude to preliminary data that support this, “but additional work will be needed for confirmation.”

So I’ve looked into other scientific articles about ethanol and roots for insights into this phenomenon. There’s nothing on narcissus, but others have studied trees, forsythia, tomato and barley reactions to root-zone ethanol. In all of these cases, exposure to ethanol resulted in reduced root growth, decreased water uptake, and reduced leaf transpiration.

How does this translate to shorter stems and leaves? A reduction in water uptake and movement through the plant – that is, from roots through the stems and out of the leaves – can reduce movement of growth regulators like cytokinins from roots to stems and leaves. It can also mean that the plant contains less water and is less turgid as a result. Both growth regulators and cell turgidity are important in cell division and elongation. Reduced cell expansion will cause stems and leaves to be shorter and/or smaller as a result. This same phenomenon can be seen in plants grown under saline or droughty conditions: these plants are always smaller than their normal counterparts.

So what your grandmother used to warn you about is true – alcohol WILL stunt your growth!

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Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors Books: http://www.sustainablelandscapesandgardens.com

4 thoughts on “Potted plants…really potted”

  1. Well, Holly, what I left out of the discussion was that flooding-tolerant species are actually stimulated by ethanol! I guess we know how to classify you now!

  2. I was just a garden center last night (not a big box) and the two workers were telling a customer to add vodka to the water of the paper whites she was buying.

    There’s a neat time lapse video on YouTube of two Amaryllis bulbs growing in an office. One with vodka and the other without.

  3. When I was in hort school (around the same time the cornell study came out) I contemplated doing an experiment for a paper in which I tested various “proofs” or quality of alcohol to see if it made a difference. I ended up choosing another project (and now can’t even recall what it was). Darn it, should have stuck with this!

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