My grandmother had a sun porch, 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, shallow 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 carried the bowl carefully to my windowsill. “There,” she said, “you’ll have flowers soon, to make you think of spring.”
My tiny apartment soon filled with that strange, exotic fragrance–not sweet, not spicy. I can’t put my finger on it. 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 10 or 20 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 for colorful bowls. I repeat the process, keeping my windowsills cheerful and my winter kitchen filled with that grandmotherly fragrance.
Sometimes my paperwhites grow so tall that I have to tie them with a ribbon to keep them from falling over. Some years ago, an older woman came for tea and, casting a practiced eye on my windowsills, 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’d heard her correctly. “Yes,” she said without so much as a smile. “When they’re up about three inches, add about 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 bought some cheap gin. It worked like a charm. Later, I learned that you may also use vodka or whiskey, tequila, or even rubbing alcohol. But somehow I prefer the gin. The only trouble is, instead of that mysterious fragrance, it makes the room smell slightly boozy, which can be a little embarrassing when folks come to visit. So I tell them it’s the paperwhites, but, of course, if they know anything about paperwhites, they know they don’t smell like that. Still, I like adding the gin; it works really well. But with that nip of booze, they’re definitely not my grandmother’s paperwhites.
Edie Clark’s book States of Grace: Encounters with Real Yankees, is a collection of her profiles of unique personalities, available at edieclark.com and selected bookstores.