Paperwhites are a winter-flowering treasure. Their pure-white blooms and heady fragrance can brighten even the darkest, coldest day. But in order to reap the benefits of paperwhite flowers, you first have to know how to plant them.
Paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta), a type of daffodil, are native to the Mediterranean, but unlike other narcissus species, they aren’t cold-hardy. Gardeners in warmer climes can grow paperwhites outside in the garden, but here in the North, we have to do all our paperwhite growing indoors.
Paperwhites don’t require a chill period in order to initiate bloom production like other types of daffodils do. This means they’re easy to “force” into flower simply by exposing the dormant bulbs to water. Dormant bulbs can be purchased from local nurseries and flower shops, as well as from online bulb purveyors, such as Brent and Becky’s Bulbs and White Flower Farm.
Your foray into paperwhite growing can start one of three ways.
1. The Vase Method
The simplest way to grow this bulb is in a vase of water. Perch a single paperwhite bulb at the top of a slender or hourglass-shaped vase so only the bulb’s base is in contact with the water. There’s a special forcing vase you can purchase (also called a hyacinth vase) that’s designed specifically to hold a single blub. As long as you make sure the vase is always full of water, the bulb will quickly form roots, followed by flower stalks and foliage.
Larger vases can house several bulbs. This is best done by pouring an inch of water into a large, clear, cylindrical or square vase, and then tucking several bulbs down into the bottom of the vase so their bases sit in the water. The flower stalks and foliage will grow inside the vase and may or may not sprout out the top, depending on the height of the vase. If you choose a taller vase, it will help support the flowers as they grow, eliminating the need to stake them or provide another means of support.
2. The Gravel Method
Another popular way to grow paperwhites is in gravel or glass pebbles. To do this, you’ll need a shallow bowl, without a drainage hole, and enough natural gravel, aquarium gravel or glass pebbles to almost fill the container. Once the gravel is in the bowl, gently nestle the bottom half of the bulbs down into it. Then fill the container with water until it reaches the base of the bulbs. You’ll have to top off the water every day or two to ensure the bulbs always have access to it. Though the gravel will help support the growing bulb, the flowering stems will eventually get top-heavy and need to be supported. I like to wrap all the stems together loosely with a piece of colored ribbon or natural raffia. This prevents them from flopping over and helps keep them tidy and upright.
3. The Potting Soil Method
The third method involves planting the bulbs in a pot or tray filled with potting soil. You can plant one bulb in a small pot or several bulbs in a larger container. Both plastic nursery pots and decorative glazed-ceramic containers work just fine. Use high-quality potting mix and tuck the bulbs into the soil so only a quarter of the bulb remains above the soil surface.
Potted paperwhites will need to be watered regularly, allowing the soil to fully drain afterwards. The soil must be slightly moist at all times, but do not allow water to sit in a saucer beneath the plant or a nasty case of fungus gnats and/or bulb rot could result from the water-logged potting soil. For container-grown paperwhites, use natural twigs or bamboo sticks to stake the flower stalks before they begin to flop.
No matter which of these three growing methods you choose, your paperwhite bulbs will be in full flower just a week or two after planting. They’re a true winter delight.