Get Started with Paperwhites

Paperwhites in full bloom in January

I’m a bit behind ordering bulbs this year, so I this morning I sat down and forced myself to finish up the various purchases I need to make for clients. And of course, how could I resist not ordering a few things for myself? So many wonderful new varieties beckoned, it was hard to show restraint, but in the end, reason prevailed: having already stuffed practically every corner of the yard with outdoor bulbs, I sated my buying urge with various bulbs for indoor forcing. If you haven’t tried growing bulbs indoors you really should – few things are more soul satisfying than greenery and fragrance in the height of winter – and the perfect place to start is with paperwhites.

“Paperwhite” is actually an all-inclusive term for a number of different members of the daffodil family, Narcissus tazetta. What the varieties have in common are small, cupped, extremely fragrant flowers in shades of yellow and white, plus the ability to bloom with very little chilling. Extremely tender, (most are hardy only to Zone 9) these little beauties have already been pre-cooled by the bulb grower, and, with the simple addition of water, are ready to go right off the store shelves. (For this reason, growing paperwhites indoors is technically not considered “forcing” bulbs. Forcing is the term for fooling bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and others into thinking it’s spring, and part of this process is a period of chilling critical to the formation of the flower bud. With paperwhites, this period is very short, and the work has already been done for you; to force other bulbs, you would need to place them in cold storage for up to 16 weeks before bringing them indoors to flower.)

I should probably add here that paperwhite varieties differ somewhat in terms of flower quantity, and immensely in terms of fragrance; the most popular, ‘Ziva,’ has loads of flowers with a heavy, musky scent that is delightful to some and cloying to others. Personally I love it, though I will say that my consistent favorite is the Chinese Sacred Lily. Its wonderfully soft, rich scent is difficult to describe, unless you happened to have ever remarked at the marvelously distinctive smell given out by the air infusers at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. What they actually use in those infusers I can’t say, but to me the whole place smells exactly like Chinese Sacred Lilies, which is a very pleasant thing indeed. In any event, if fragrance is important to you, it pays to experiment with different varieties:

‘Chinese Sacred Lily’ – white petals and a cheddar cheese cup; sometimes not as free flowering as others and may need staking, but its fragrance is so wonderful, it makes up for it! 12″ -20″.
‘Constantinople’ – Although this double form of Chinese Sacred Lily supposedly has the same coloring, fragrance and growth habit, we’ve found it to be far less floriferous and somewhat problematic.
‘Galilee’ – Pure white flowers with a moderate musky fragrance; if ‘Ziva’ is too strong for you, try this variety. 12″ – 14″; when forcing, allow 3-4 weeks to bloom.
‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ – beautifully formed, golden yellow petals with an orange cup; takes longer to force than others and often produces fewer flowers, but its wonderful, delicate, sweet fragrance makes up for it! 12″-14″.
‘Israel’ – Creamy yellow petals and a sulfur yellow cup; has a delicate musky fragrance; my favorite of last winter’s trials. 16″ – 20″; when forcing allow 3-4 weeks to bloom.
‘Nazareth’ – Soft yellow petals and a bright yellow cup; moderate musky fragrance; 10″ – 12″; when forcing allow 3-4 weeks to bloom.
‘Ziva’ – The most common paperwhite, and the most reliable. Very early and easy to force; pure white flower; strong musky fragrance; (same people say too strong!) 16″ – 18″; when forcing allow 2-3 weeks to bloom.

The technique I outline below is very easy and can be completed in less than an hour. It makes a fun project for the kids, especially since the bulbs will often grow inches a day – to the amazement of even the most impatient child – or the process can be used to generate artful arrangements or handsome gifts.

Getting Started
To get started, you’ll need a supply of bulbs, (see Sources below) appropriate containers, a source of water, and enough gravel or soil-less mix to fill whatever pot or container you’ve chosen to the depth of several inches. While the process isn’t particularly messy, it helps to set up shop somewhere where a bit of dirt and moisture won’t be a problem.

Choose the Proper Container
Although almost any kind of pot can be used, I prefer to force my paperwhites in large zinc florist buckets (available at almost any nursery or florist), for two reasons: first of all, paperwhites are notoriously floppy, and these high necked containers relieve the need for staking the paperwhites later; secondly, because the buckets are waterproof, you don’t have to worry about water seepage when you place the pots on the floor or on top of furniture. To begin, place several inches of clean gravel on the bottom of the container to form a water reservoir, and on top of that place several inches of pre-fertilized soil-less mix, such as Scott’s Miracle Grow Potting Mix. While you often see paperwhites forced in pure gravel, I find the bulbs perform better and give longer lasting flowers if they get a little nutritional help along the way.

Place the Plants
Place the paperwhites pointed side up, on top of the soil, and then cover the bulbs just enough to leave the tips exposed. DO NOT bury the bulbs entirely: this will merely retard flowering. Water well, though be careful to not flood the bulbs, especially if using the florist buckets, as they have no drainage holes on the bottom to remove excess water.
Et Voila!
Depending on how fast you want your paperwhites to bloom, either bring them immediately into a warm, bright room for fast flowering, or place your pots in a cool (40-50 degree) place and bring them into the house sequentially to extend the blooming period. Make sure, however, the pots don’t freeze: paperwhites are extremely tender and will not tolerate cold temperatures. Water as needed while in flower. Unless you live in the far south (think Florida, zones 9-11) where they could naturally be planted outdoors, paperwhites can’t be reused (and probably shouldn’t be anyway, as the bulbs are generally exhausted after flowering indoors). Compost the bulbs when they have finished blooming and start with fresh paperwhites next year.

For all the paperwhites listed above, try one of my favorite bulb suppliers: Brent & Becky’s Bulbs


Get Started with Paperwhites — 3 Comments

  1. The zinc buckets look sublime filled with the paperwhites. I can just imagine the fragrance. Beautiful.

  2. They do look stunning. How about light though? In zone 3 we have daylight from 8 am to 4 pm in winter, and if the sky is cloudy, forget it. Would just a few hours be enough? Being near a window is hard too, as the air is so cold there….

  3. Hi T: Not terribly dependent on light; a warm spot is important though; you can also start under lights in a warm location and then distribute around the house

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