How To Grow And Care For Paperwhites

Learn 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, trumpet-shaped flowers can be forced indoors without chilling or planted outdoors in frost-free areas, sprouting and producing pretty white blooms in just four 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."

Paperwhites will remain beautiful throughout the holidays and beyond, making them great gifts for friends and family (and, of course, schoolteachers). Try some of the newer selections and experiment a little to find your favorites, using our guide to growing these beautiful flowers. All parts of the plant are toxic to pets and to people, but the bulbs are especially so. Keep bulbs and plants out of reach.

Plant Attributes
Common Name Paperwhites, tazetta daffodils, paperwhite narcissus
Botanical Name Narcissus tazetta
Family Amaryllidaceae
Plant Type Perennial, bulb
Mature Size 8-24 in. tall, 6-12 in. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Well-drained, loam, sandy loam
Soil pH Acidic to neutral (6.0-7.0)
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White, yellow, orange
Hardiness Zones 8-11 (USDA)
Native Area Mediterranean, Asia
Toxicity Entire plant toxic to pets, toxic to people

Paperwhite Care

Paperwhites like sun, well-drained soil, and mild temperatures. Indoors, you may need to stake your paperwhites at some point. Brent says these flowers can get leggy with insufficient light. You can also enjoy forced paperwhites outdoors—as long as temperatures will stay above freezing.


Paperwhites require adequate light in order to bloom. Outdoors, plant in a sunny spot with some protection from the mid-day sun. Indoors, place them in or near a sunny window. Paperwhites don't like to overheat, so don't place them in a south-facing window where the afternoon sun streams in for hours. Rotate containers to keep the plants from leaning toward the light.


Paperwhites don't require soil to grow, which is why you can force them indoors in a glass bowl or vase on a bed of gravel, marbles, or polished glass. You can also plant them in a pot indoors or out. If you do use soil, good drainage is key. Use a lightweight potting mix with excellent drainage. If you plant in the ground, loamy soil or sandy loam is best. Clay soil must be amended to improve drainage. The bulbs can rot from growing in soggy, cold soil, which is why many Southern gardeners treat them as annuals.


Because paperwhite bulbs are sensitive to rotting, be careful not to overwater. The water level should be just beneath the bottom of the bulb if you are growing your plants in a glass bowl or vase. The roots will reach down into the water. If you are growing your paperwhites in soil, water just enough so that the soil is lightly moist. If you planted paperwhites in the ground, only water when the plants are actively growing. The bulbs prefer to be drier while dormant.

Temperature And Humidity

Paperwhites can be grown any time of year as long as they aren't subject to frost. The plants will be more compact and flowers will last longer when kept slightly below room temperature at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Bulbs can sprout at lower temperatures of 45 or 50 degrees.

Outdoor containers can be brought inside when a freeze is expected. When planted outdoors in the ground, bulbs are more likely to become perennial in frost-free or almost frost-free areas like the Coastal South. Some varieties may be more cold-hardy, so check the bulb or plant label.


Fertilizer isn't required when growing bulbs for one season; the bulbs contain all the nutrients the plant needs. You can fertilize paperwhites planted in the ground. Use a bulb-boosting fertilizer at the time of planting and in subsequent years when the plants begin to sprout. Fertilizer may be provided a third time once paperwhites begin to die back if your plants bloomed poorly.

Types Of Paperwhites

An early bloomer, 'Ziva' is the most readily available pure white selection used in prepackaged boxes. Some paperwhite selections, such as 'Inbal' and 'Ariel,' don't perform well in water and will force best in soil.

Other paperwhite varieties deviate from the usual pure white flowers. 'Cragford' and 'Falconet' both have dark orange trumpets, but the latter also has yellow outer petals. 'Grand Soleil D'or' has the typical golden yellow coloring of its daffodil relatives, but with the pleasant scent of a paperwhite. 'Avalanche' is an unusually cold-hardy paperwhite that can be planted outdoors throughout the South. The blooms are white with a buttery-yellow trumpet.

Propagating Paperwhites

Dividing narcissus bulbs is a practice commonly used to rejuvenate overcrowded clumps that stop blooming or flower poorly. You can also use this method to spread an expanding collection of paperwhites around your garden. Wait until the foliage has mostly turned brown and died back. Using a shovel or spade, gently dig a circle a few inches wider than your clump. Dispose of any damaged or sickly-looking bulbs. Divide your bulbs and replant 4-6 inches apart in deep, loose, well-drained soil at the same depth. Plant in groups of five or more for the most impact.

Planting Bulbs Outside in Fall

For a seasonal display, place the bulbs, with the tips exposed above the soil line, in tightly packed clusters of three to five in window boxes or large containers near doorways and garden entries to welcome guests. Plant them about four weeks before you want flowers to appear (you can stagger planting over the weeks to lengthen the bloom period). Add a little holly and a few berries for more color. Should the mercury threaten to dip, just bring your container inside until the temperature warms back up.

If you live in the Lower or Coastal South, paperwhites can be planted in the ground for spring flowers. This Mediterranean native performs best as a perennial in areas with hot, dry summers; many varieties are more likely to return in Zone 9 gardens. Don't use bulbs that have been forced in water, as they may not bloom again. Follow these steps for planting paperwhites in the ground in the fall:

  1. Prepare the garden bed, adding peat or compost to improve drainage if you have heavy soil. Loosen soil to a few inches deeper than the depth at which you will plant your bulbs. Mix in bulb-boosting fertilizer if desired, following package directions.
  2. Plant bulbs at a depth that is about three times the size of the bulb, usually about 6 inches deep, with the tip of the bulb facing up. Space bulbs 4 to 6 inches apart.
  3. Fill in holes with soil, water, and lightly mulch.

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 four to six weeks ahead. Flowers will bloom for as long as two 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 is just below the base of the bulbs. (Always keep water at that level so that the roots, not the bulb, stay wet.) From there, follow the same directions you'd use for planting in soil.

In A Vase

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 just reaches the bottom of the bulb.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

As mentioned above, paperwhites are susceptible to rot from too much moisture. Throw out mushy bulbs and improve drainage or reduce watering for your healthy bulbs.

Paperwhites are fairly pest-resistant. Deer and rabbits don't bother them. The larvae of the narcissus bulb fly can infest bulbs grown outdoors, causing them to rot or send up scrawny growth. If you suspect an infestation, pull up bulbs after foliage has died back and dispose of any that are infested. Spray the base of plants with an insecticide each spring when the foliage is dying back to break the life cycle of the pest. Nematodes can also attack the bulb and stems, causing yellow patches on leaves, stunted foliage, and rot on the bulb. Throw out infected bulbs as the nematodes can spread to other plants in your garden.

How To Get Paperwhites to Bloom

Paperwhites require no special care to bloom as long as they have bright light and aren't subjected to a freeze. Adequate moisture is also necessary for the plant to bloom—water consistently so that the soil is lightly moist or so that the roots have access in their bowl or vase.

A more common complaint is that paperwhites don't bloom in their second year. Bulbs that have been forced indoors often haven't stored enough energy to bloom again. If you choose to plant your holiday bulbs outdoors in hopes the flowers will return, expect it to take two or three years for your paperwhites to bloom again.

On the other hand, if you started your bulbs in the garden and don't see blooms, other issues could be to blame, like a lack of sunlight, overcrowding, or pests. Dig up bulbs after the foliage has died back to see if they have been attacked by pests or rot. Divide and replant in a sunnier location if needed.

Common Problems With Paperwhites

When forced indoors, a paperwhite's leaves can grow lanky and fall over. Unfortunately, the flowers flop right over with the plant. Not to worry—we've got a few solutions to this common problem.

Tall, Floppy Plant

Here are some approaches to preventing or dealing with extra floppy paperwhites:

  1. When the bulb first sprouts, begin to water the plant with a mild alcohol solution. The spiked water will cause the plant to grow more compactly and support its flowers. Mix 1 part of 40-proof hard alcohol with 7 parts water. Don't use beer or wine, which are too sugary for this purpose.
  2. Keep the plant at a cooler temperature of around 60 degrees for less lanky growth. Provide maximum sunlight in a cool spot.
  3. Stake leggy plants 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.
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