Photo: Ralph Anderson
This time of year, staying busy is a given. Luckily, adding paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta) to a table or your yard is surprisingly simple. “Paperwhites are some of the easiest flowers to grow, but they aren’t all the same,” says Brent Heath, a third-generation Southern bulb farmer. He and his wife, Becky, own Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, Virginia. “Newer selections have lighter scents, larger blooms, and sturdier stalks,” Brent explains, “and some even have pale yellow blooms versus the classic white flowers.”
Enjoy Paperwhites Indoors
Paperwhites will remain beautiful throughout the holidays and beyond, making them great gifts for friends and family (and, of course, schoolteachers). An early bloomer, ‘Ziva’ is the most readily available selection and the one most often used in prepackaged boxes. Try some of the newer selections, and experiment a little to find your favorites.
Indoors, you may need to stake your paperwhites at some point. Brent says these flowers can get leggy with insufficient light. Stake with bamboo or cut branches from your garden. American sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) creates a rustic look, and redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea) offers bold, Christmas-red stems. Use willow (Salix sp.) after New Year’s, as the yellow-green stems help warm up the winter months.
Plant Paperwhites Outside
You can also enjoy forced paperwhites outdoors—as long as temperatures stay above freezing. Place them in window boxes or in large containers near doorways and garden entries to welcome guests. Add a little holly and a few berries for a nice seasonal display. Should the mercury threaten to dip, just bring your container inside.
If you live in the Lower or Coastal South, paperwhites and their hybrids will grow outside in the ground. You can plant them right now and enjoy them in late winter and into early spring, depending on where you live and what selections you choose. (These bulbs prefer mostly sunny spots with loose, well-drained soil.) If you live in the Middle or Upper South, where it’s too cold for paperwhites in the landscape, consider the abundant daffodils (Narcissus sp.) you can plant outside for a similar look.
How to Force Paperwhite Blooms
This is the best and easiest way to force. Start with a small pot. Fill with a coarse potting soil mix. Add bulbs. Don’t plant too deeply. Water well, and let drain. Place pots in a cool room (around 55 to 60 degrees) for 7 to 10 days to stimulate roots. Then move to a warm spot (around 70 degrees) with bright light to encourage foliage and flowers. As leaves emerge, rotate your pot every few days to keep stalks straight. As buds swell and open, move the pot to a cooler spot out of direct light to extend the life of the flowers. Keep soil slightly moist.
This is also easy. Purchase a fine gravel from your local pet store. (Natural stone colors work well and will complement the brown, papery skin of the bulbs.) Gently add gravel to a shallow, clear dish or wide-mouthed canning jar. Place bulbs, and then add a little more gravel, if needed. Remember to keep at least one-third of each bulb above gravel level. Add water until it reaches the base of the bulbs. (Always keep water at that level.) From there, follow the same directions you’d use for planting in soil.
This can sometimes be tricky, but watching the roots grow is almost as much fun as watching the flowers open. Forcing vases fit well on windowsills and in other small spaces. A tall, slender one will help support the stalks as they grow. A single vase with one bulb can be eye-catching, but use multiple vases for a bigger show. Place a bulb in the vase, and add water until it reaches the bottom of the bulb. Some paperwhite selections, such as ‘Inbal’ and ‘Ariel,’ won’t perform well in water and will force best in soil.