Paperwhites: A Holiday Favorite

These fragrant flowers are the easiest and most affordable bulbs you'll ever grow--all they want to do is bloom.
Gene B. Bussell

For this busy season, you want simple arrangements--blossoms so carefree that they can grow in pebbles, water, or soil. And if you don't have time to grow them, you can just buy them ready to go. Whether you are a beginning gardener or an expert, there is one truth to know about paperwhites--they are perfect holiday flowers.

A Paperwhite Primer
Though these special days are a time to enjoy family and friends, they can sometimes become hectic and even stressful. Flowers are a quick cure for any seasonal troubles. Watching things grow will calm you, help you to slow down and relax. Here's all you need to know to get started.

Paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta) can be purchased individually for about a dollar each; in bags of many bulbs; or in prepackaged box sets that come with a pot, soil, and bulbs ready to plant. They are available anywhere fall bulbs are sold.

Growing in Pebbles
These plants are easy and fun to watch emerge, especially for kids. You can see the roots and the stalks growing in clear containers. Shallow bowls or jars work well if you steady the bulbs in pebbles. When using stones in a glass container, pour them in gently so as not to crack or break the glass. Always keep the water level up to the bottom of the bulb.

Growing in Water
Forcing vases work well and are available in many colors. A single vase with one bulb can create a lot of impact. Use multiple vases for a stronger statement. They fit well on windowsills and other small spaces. Forcing vases will hold bulbs up high, but the water should still be even with the bottom of the bulb.

Growing in Soil
When planting your pot, you can use about four to five bulbs per 6-inch container. Make sure that it has holes for drainage. Fill with soil, and then gently add the bulbs. Don't plant them too deeply; a third of the bulb should be above the level of the soil. Place in a cool (around 60 degrees), dark area for seven days to encourage root development. Then move to a warm (around 70 degrees) and bright area to encourage topgrowth.

As the leaves emerge, rotate the pot every few days to keep stalks straight. The cooler the temperature, the sturdier the stalk and the less likely it will be to topple over. Once the flowerbuds swell and begin to open, move the pot to a cooler location out of direct light to extend the life of the flowers. Keep soil moist but not wet.

 

Blooms
Paperwhites are very fragrant flowers. Most people describe their aroma as perfume, although others feel it is closer to being just plain fumes. And here lies a testament to their versatility. If you find their scent too strong, you can use these bulbs outside as long as the temperature does not fall below freezing.

They work well alone or mixed with violas and pansies. Use in containers near doorways and garden entries to welcome guests. In the Lower and Coastal South, you can even plant the bulbs in your garden, where they'll provide blooms year after year.

Staking
Bamboo stakes will keep paperwhite stalks standing tall, but you can use almost anything for support. Try cut branches from your garden. Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) works well for a rustic look at Thanksgiving. The red stems of burning bush (Euonymus alata) look great at Christmas. Use willow (Salix sp.) after New Year's, as the yellow-green stems brighten the winter months. Tie raffia or twine to stems, if necessary. 

Great Gifts
Paperwhites are beautiful through the holidays and beyond, which makes them excellent presents. 'Ziva' is the most popular selection, blooming early. It is the one you'll find before the holidays and the one most often used in prepackaged boxes.

Making Them Last
You can have waves of lovely blooms from now through winter by planting 'Ziva' every few weeks to stagger the bloom times. Other selections come in different colors, heights, and fragrances. 'Galilee' has white flowers and a mild scent. 'Omri' blooms later, likes cooler temperatures, and offers cream flowers with yellow centers. 'Grand Soleil d'Or' performs well into winter and sports bright yellow flowers.

Design
When using paperwhites for the holidays, just match the colors of the containers to the season. Use warm browns and oranges for Thanksgiving. Reds, greens, golds, and silvers look best at Christmas. Whites and yellows will greet the New Year and warm the later winter months.

"Paperwhites: A Holiday Favorite" is from the November 2003 issue of Southern Living.