Thursday, December 04, 2014

Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus): You Can Grow That!

Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) are a great holiday season project for beginning gardeners and for doing with children. These Mediterranean bulbs are pre-chilled for you so they are virtually ready to "pop" once you place them in water. 

They are generally inexpensive, around $1-2 each, so you can buy several and pot them up as gifts for everyone on your list. 

I like to place them individually in votive candle holders or heavy-bottom rocks glasses then line them up on windowsills, down the middle of a dining table, along the fireplace mantel, or singly next to the bathroom sinks. You can also take a large glass bowl or tall vase and place several bulbs in together to make a forest of paperwhites. I have used fishbowls, teapots, and old watering cans. Really anything that is water-tight can be used, so look around your home for inspiration.

To anchor the bulbs in and preventing them from toppling over as they grow leggy, you can place the bulbs in a variety of decorative media from aquarium pebbles to glass marbles. (You can always use potting soil to plant them in, but that is messy and not as pretty, IMHO.) I like to use hydrating water beads that you can get from florist supply and craft sources. They come in many shades, but I tend to stick with the classic clear ones. Whatever media you use, keep the water level only up to about the bulb's hip area so as not to rot it. If your home is as dry as mine in winter, you will need to top off the water every few days, so keep an eye on that.

Once "potted," place them in a sunny window until the leaves emerge and a stalk with flower bud started to form (usually about 10 days to 2 weeks), then place them wherever you'd like to display them.

After the flowers start to fade, pull the bulbs out of the water and pry off any marbles/stones/glass that you want to re-use next year then throw out the whole plant in your compost pile. In our Midatlantic USA region, they are not winter-hardy so there is no need to try and plant or save them for next season. 

Warning! The scent of paperwhite blooms is a love/hate thing. I personally fall on the "not-my-favorite smell" end of things, so I keep paperwhites in well-ventilated rooms and out of any bedrooms. If you really cannot stand the scent, there are paperwhite varieties that are lighter in fragrance than the mass-produced 'Ziva' that you find everywhere. These you will need to special-order from bulb catalogs long before the holiday season. They include 'Inbal' and 'Galilee.'

All who are involved with You Can Grow That! (YCGT!) believe that plants and gardening enhance our quality of life. We want people to be successful with what they grow and to become more aware of the many gifts that horticulture brings. Find out more at

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