How To Grow And Care For Paperwhites

Our guide shows you how to plant, care for, and force the bulbs of your paperwhites. They're great gifts for the holidays or all year long.


Ralph Anderson

Around the holidays, staying busy is a given. Luckily, adding paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta) to a table or your yard is surprisingly simple. The bulbs of these fragrant, star-shaped flowers can be forced indoors without chilling or planted outdoors in frost-free areas, sprouting and producing pretty white blooms in just four to six weeks.

"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."

Grow 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 twigs after New Year's, as the yellow-green stems help warm up the winter months.

Plant Paperwhites Outside in Fall

You can also enjoy forced paperwhites outdoors—as long as temperatures will stay above freezing. Place the bulbs, with the tips exposed above the soil line, in clusters of three to five in window boxes or 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 in late fall and enjoy them in winter and into early spring, depending on where you live and what selections you choose. If you live in the Middle or Upper South, where it's too cold for paperwhites in the landscape, consider the abundant daffodils (Narcissus spp.) you can plant outside for a similar look.

How to Plant Paperwhites in the Ground

Paperwhites are typically grown as annuals, even in frost-free areas. It's possible for paperwhites to bloom year after year, but this Mediterranean native performs best as a perennial in areas with hot, dry summers, such as parts of Texas.

Paperwhites grow best in mostly sunny spots with loose, well-drained soil. Plant the bulbs 6 inches deep and about 4 inches apart. You may have winter blooms depending on when you plant them. In subsequent years, paperwhites will bloom in the spring.

How to Force Paperwhites

With proper planning, you can force paperwhites to bloom right around Christmas. Choose one of these methods and start your bulbs in November for blooms in four to six weeks.

In Soil

This is the best and easiest way to force. Start with a small pot. Fill with a coarse potting soil mix. Add bulbs. Plant bulbs so that the pointed tip is right side up and about 1/4 of the bulb is exposed. Water well and let drain. Place pots in a cool room (around 55 to 60 degrees) for seven 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.

In Pebbles

This is also easy. Purchase 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.

In Water

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.

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