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Can tulips be forced to bloom indoors on plain water?

At the root of it all: Tulip bulbs supported by marbles to bloom on plain water. Glass vases show the beauty in roots. Tulip bulbs can be forced into bloom indoors, much like amaryllis, paperwhites and hyacinths. I am in my third year of forcing them to bloom on only plain water in vases filled with small stones or florist marbles.

This year, with several inches of snow still lingering, I have an indoor garden that's giving me a happy jumpstart on spring.   

For this round, I decided to experiment with supermarket bulbs instead of my usual mail order bulbs. The results have been mixed. So far, I have a bowl of sprouted muscari (grape hyacinth) bulbs that have had two very dissappointing flower clusters among lots of green shoots (not shown). Previously, mail-order bulbs produced several stunning water-grown grape hyacinth displays.

From this year's supermarket tulip bulbs, I have three perfect tulips, one slightly flawed tulip, one mutant tulip, and four tulip bulbs in one vase that sprouted but never took root. 

This year, I also decided to test a box marked "Wild Tulips." These little bulbs (tulipa saxatilis) all rooted well and are at different stages of growth despite having been "planted" at the same time. With pointed petals and an attractive yellow center, one is in flower and only starting to fade after having been fully open for 8 days. A second bloom is now pushing out of its stem, while other bulbs are topped with green shoots at various heights.  

All the tulip bulbs were put into vases and set in my unheated garage last December. I brought them upstairs in early February, placing the vases near a sunny window. The first -- my mutant yellow tulip -- bloomed about three weeks later in early March. 

The "wild" tulipa saxatilis, left, with standard tulips in three vases. The purple tulip is growing solo in a tall, cylindrical glass vase. Each supermarket box cost $1.99 for six bulbs. At a bargain price, these are a great starting point for someone just getting into indoor bulb forcing on water.

My first indoor water tulips were a nursery quality orange 'Suncatcher' variety. They performed beautifully despite my having kept them in my kitchen for weeks before being instructed to pot them up -- or in my case, put them in vases -- immediately and put them in a cold place lest they dry out.

Last year, I bought a variety of tulip bulbs without one bloom. The bulbs were attacked by a fungus and possibly had some other troubles that prevented bloom. In my first year, a few of the Suncatcher tulip bulbs were similarly afflicted but they still bloomed happily; apparently unaffected hosts.

I had read that peeling off each bulb's papery brown skin would help it root more easily. After the massive bulb failure last year, I then wondered if leaving the skin on would protect the bulbs from fungus. This year, I peeled some and left some in their skins. It seems to not make a huge difference in either case. The unpeeled bulbs sprouted roots from areas where the skin had cracked open, while the peeled bulbs rooted more fully all around. However, peeling the bulb does not seem to make a difference in flowering. The best flowers are growing on both peeled and unpeeled bulbs. 

This year's one bulb with fungus was one left in its skin, which makes me suspect that the fungal bulbs already have spores when they arrive. This year, I put most of the bulbs in tall vases to prevent airborne spores from moving to healthy bulbs. When I noticed one bulb with fungus, I removed it from its vase and isolated it from the others. No other bulb developed fungus, so this seems to have been a good approach. 

Like other flowering plants, the various tulip species will bloom at different times. The mixed variety supermarket tulips all bloomed in less time than the Suncatcher tulips, which are listed as mid-spring bloomers that flowered in April after I had put them in vases the previous December. Last year, I had ordered early, mid and late season tulips to compare their bloom times. It is an experiment I will try again next year to compare performance and bloom time. 

Unlike those of grape hyacinths, amaryllis and paperwhites, tulip bulbs need to be conditioned by a cold spell that replicates winter. Some people put them in a refrigerator drawer, but care needs to be taken to keep them away from produce that can release gasses that can prevent them from blooming. I have found that putting tulip bulbs in vases in December and letting them spend about three months in my dark, unheated garage works fine. 

Tulip bulbs from a supermarket yielded mixed results with indoor water forcing. A yellow tulip is poorly formed, the purple tulip is imperfect, but three others are well shaped.

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