Photo credit: Margaret Stoddard
If bright red poinsettias aren’t your cup of tea, consider the crisp white flowers of paperwhite narcissus this holiday season. Botanically speaking, paperwhites are cultivars of Narcissus papyraceus. Unlike most forced bulbs, paperwhites do not require a period of pre-cooling before blooming indoors.
Paperwhite bulbs can be purchased in stores or nurseries, but there can be variation in the quality and size of bulbs. Ordering bulbs by mail, directly from the grower, or from a specialty nursery, allows you to choose the variety you desire, the size of the bulb and the perfect quantity for your needs. Bulbs typically cost one to two dollars each. If you order in quantities of 50 or more you’ll pay less than a dollar per bulb, brightening your home all winter or at the ready for gifting.
‘Ziva’ is the classic paperwhite - pure white, with a strong musky fragrance. Look for bulbs at least 16 centimeters in diameter for the largest flowers. Paperwhite fragrance is akin to cilantro- some people adore it, while it reminds others of dirty socks or cat urine. Its musky scent is due to the presence of indole - the same component of many cherished scents, including the fragrance of jasmine, orange blossoms and gardenia.
Growers have been working on hybridizing cultivars with a less pronounced fragrance than Zivas. ‘Inbal’, ‘Ariel’ and ‘Nir’ are reputed to have a lighter scent than Ziva. Some of these varieties are also shorter in stature than the classic Ziva, which can require measures to stay upright once in full bloom.
Upon receipt or purchase, remove your paperwhites from their packing and store in a cool space (55 to 60°F) to maintain freshness. You can expect paperwhites to root within two to three weeks and bloom at around six weeks from planting in 68 to 70°F room temperatures.
If possible, keep your paperwhites at a cooler temperature during the rooting period, allowing for optimal root growth. Move bulbs into normal room temperature once they show an inch or two of top growth
You can plant paperwhites in potting soil or in pebbles without any soil. Regardless of planting technique, keep in mind that paperwhites should be planted together tightly—an inch apart or less.
To grow paperwhites in potting soil, use a quality soilless mix and plant the bulbs in a container with a drainage hole. Ideally, the container should be four to five inches deep. A shallower container will work, but once the bulbs root they may push up from the soil—causing no harm to the bulb. Gently push the bulbs down if they begin to heave from the soil. Add soil around the paperwhites, allowing the top third of the bulb to project above the soil. Water well along the sides of the bulbs, then allow them to drain thoroughly. Proceed as above for the rooting and flowering periods. Water when the soil surface is dry, always allowing the excess water to drain from the pot. If you have an attractive pot without a drainage hole, plant the bulbs in a plastic pot and slip the pot into a more decorative container. Take the inner pot out for watering and allow it to drain completely. Top with pebbles or moss for a more decorative look.
Paperwhites planted in pebbles have a contemporary feeling and the visible growth of their roots can be fun for a budding gardener to observe. You can use a shallow bowl at least three inches deep or a taller clear container up to eight inches tall, which can serve to keep the foliage from flopping. Place at least one inch of pebbles at the bottom of the container. Set the bulbs atop the pebbles, continue to spread pebbles between the bulbs, packing them well enough to keep the bulbs stable. The top third of the bulb should be exposed. Add water to the planting, allowing ¼ inch of space from between the water level and the base of the bulb. From planting through blooming keep an eye on the water level within the container, maintaining the ¼ inch gap between the bulb and the water.
Paperwhites can begin to flop in our warmer home temperatures. You can stake them with pretty branches or bamboo stakes, making sure not to insert the stakes into the bulbs. Ribbon or twine can be used to create an armature for support. Alternatively, you can “pickle” your paperwhites—especially if they’re grown in pebbles—by mixing a bit of alcohol into their water. Carefully follow the method developed by Cornell University’s Flower Bulb Research Program.
Pristine white and fragrant (to most of us!), paperwhites are a perfectly simple and beautiful flower to enjoy all winter.