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Growing Paperwhites

Growing Paperwhites

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Beautiful and fragrant, paperwhites are a must for holiday decorating. Their icy white flowers, blue-green foliage and lush scent add life and charm to our winter décor. Best of all, paperwhites are easy to grow. They don’t need chilling time or much preparation. Just plant, water, and stand back as they burst into bloom.

Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) are most readily available from October until early January. Garden centers often sell paperwhite kits containing bulbs, soil, pot and planting instructions. Some even sell the bulbs individually, which is nice if you prefer using your own containers. You can also find kits in supermarkets and big box stores. Both kits and bulbs are available on the internet. Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, White Flower Farm, and Easy To Grow Bulbs all sell paperwhites online.

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Photo by Skyler Ewing from Pexels

As it’s December, starting bulbs now won’t give you flowers until late January, unless you buy paperwhites already in bloom. But it’s always nice to have a blooming plant to look forward to, especially in winter. If you’re really ambitious you can buy 15 or 20 bulbs and plant them in two or three week intervals so there’s always some in flower.

If you’re not planning to plant them right away, keep the bulbs in a dark, cool place. Plant within four to six weeks. Once they start growing, you can move them to a sunny location. According to Easy To Grow Bulbs, paperwhites take 30 to 40 days to bloom.

Planting

Almost any container – as long as it holds water – can be used to grow paperwhites. It doesn’t even need to have drainage holes. However the deeper the container, the better. Floppy leaves and stems are one drawback of planting in shallow containers. Also, if the container isn’t deep enough, the expanding roots will push the bulb up out of the growing medium.

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Deeper containers support the stems and leaves as they grow. I like to use vases that are a half to two-thirds the height of the top-heavy stems, which can be anywhere from 12” to 18” tall. You can also use ready-made plant supports, or tie the stems to bamboo stakes stuck in the growing medium.

If using potting mix, moisten the mix with warm water before planting the bulbs. Put two or three inches of mix in the bottom of the container. Set the bulbs in the mix, close to each other but not touching, and cover with mix so that the necks and tips of the bulbs are exposed.

Place the pot in a cool (ideally 50-60°F) spot out of direct sun. Water when the mix is dry, but don’t overwater or the bulbs will rot. This is especially important if the container doesn’t have drainage holes. After about two or three weeks, once you notice the bulbs rooting and the tops growing, put the container in a sunny spot.

You don’t need to plant paperwhites in potting mix. I’ve used pebbles, river rocks, and marbles. You could also use beach glass, seashells, glass pebbles, or nothing at all. They’ll grow happily in water. Just set them so the roots can grow into the water, but the bulb stays above, or it will rot.

To help keep stems from becoming too lanky, add a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol (one part alcohol to 11 parts water) or vodka (one part vodka to seven parts water) and use that to water the paperwhites. Start once the stems are about one to two inches above the bulb. The alcohol stresses the plant just a bit, keeping growth short. Watch the ratio: too much alcohol will kill the plants.

Paperwhite Varieties

The brilliant white ‘Ziva’ is the classic paperwhite used for forcing, and is the variety you are most likely to find in stores. It is also one of the most fragrant of the paperwhites readily available, so fragrant that it’s off-putting for some.

Other varieties include ‘Ariel’, which blooms earlier than ‘Ziva’. ‘Wintersun’ is a cream color with bright yellow centers. Its fragrance isn’t as heavy as other varieties. ‘Inball’ is another variety that isn’t as intensely fragrant.

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Magnus Manske, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Post-bloom

Paperwhites are members of the daffodil family, but unlike the spring-blooming daffs we grow, these bulbs aren’t hardy enough to grow outdoors in most of the U.S.

However, if you live in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 8 and warmer, paperwhites can be planted outdoors in soil, and after resting for a couple of years, will rebloom. Some gardeners in zone 7 have reported that the bulbs will survive if planted in a sheltered place.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, unlike amaryllis and other indoor bulbs, you cannot coax paperwhites into flowering again. All that’s left to do is compost the bulbs once they have finished flowering, and plan to get more next year.


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