by High Country Gardens

Narcissus Ziva paperwhite
The classic Ziva Paperwhite.

Have you ever wondered what the lovely white wintertime flowers were, in holiday photographs and homes? Have you tried to grow them and felt they somehow didn’t come out quite right? Floppy, no flowers?Here we have it, just for you – easy-to-follow instructions for bountiful holiday paperwhite blooms.

But before we get started, let’s learn a bit about who they are and where they come from…

What we call paperwhites are from the genus Narcissus, commonly known as daffodils. With delicate white petals and a lovely scent they are icons of the holiday season. What makes this group of daffodils special for our use, is that they do not require chilling to bloom. Native to the western Mediterranean region they are naturally hardy only in zones 8-11, but they find worldwide use as bulbs for indoor forcing, where everyone can enjoy their fragrant, graceful flowers.

What is forcing? Forcing bulbs means that we mimic the bulb’s environmental needs (such as a cold spell) by artificially creating conditions to ‘trick’ the bulb into thinking it’s time to bloom, even in the depths of winter. Any time you see spring bulbs blooming in pots during the winter, they have been ‘forced’. While many bulbs need a solid cold season, paperwhites do not, making them and amaryllis, our number one picks for great holiday blooms.

Here’s our easy how-to guide to holiday paperwhites:

    empty container for paperwhites
  1. Pick your bulbs. If you like the scent of paperwhites, or want to try its traditional scent, I’d suggest ‘Ziva’. If, on the other hand, you’d prefer only a faint scent, try ‘Inbal’ instead. ‘Inbal’ bulbs should be planted in soil only, not just gravel. Choose large bulbs with firm flesh, roots and maybe even a bit of growth.
  2. Choose your medium. ‘Ziva’ paperwhite bulbs will bloom happily in soil, gravel, sand, glass beads or even just water. This makes their use an experiment in creativity. Often the medium I choose is dependent upon the pot.
  3. Choose your container. Have fun, be inventive! Old pots, trays, jars, hurricane vases, bowls. Try planting them in a clear, tall vase (the vase will help keep them upright as they grow, or a large pot or saucer where you can pack it full of bulbs. They don’t need a lot of room for their roots, so a pot or saucer only a few inches deep will work just fine. I like to plant an assortment of containers, from single bulbs (great gifts) to large showy masses of flowers. Often I choose favorite garden pots. The only problems is that they have a drainage hole in the bottom and if gravel is the medium, water will run right through your pot. Here’s a quick solution: Use an old wine bottle cork to plug the hole. You may need to shave its edges to fit it in, but it will swell and remain adequately water-tight. It will stand up in your pot allowing easy removal – the paperwhite will grow right around it.
  4. planted bulbs
  5. Plant! Place about two inches of your growing medium (soil, gravel, etc.) in the bottom of your pot. Nestle bulbs, root side down, pointy end up, in the medium. For a full look, place them right next to each other, or spread them out for a looser look. Add more medium to stabilize your bulbs, but don’t totally cover them. If your group is large you may want to place a wire plant support around them to support them as they grow. Water until just the bottom of the bulbs are in water.
  6. Place them in a cool (50-60 degrees F), low light location until shoots appear. Depending upon your location, this may take 1-2 weeks. Keep watered as needed.
  7. Once growth appears, bring them out into a sunny, warm location, turning as they grow to keep them straight. Continue watering as needed, but don’t overwater – if the bulbs sit in deep water, they may rot. No fertilizer needed, the bulbs have all food necessary for growth. It’s really that easy for lovely winter blooms!
  8. stabilized bulbs

    A Note about Height or How to Prevent Flopping Over.

    Paperwhite narcissus grows 16-24 inches in height. As their blooms weigh in they may start to flop over. Tying them together with a nice ribbon is an easy fix, or if you have a garden plant support that suits you, it’s a solution. Otherwise, what if you could have paperwhites that grew less tall?! It’s now possible to do just that with one simple trick:

    Pickling Your Paperwhites Makes Them Shorter!

    Start your paperwhites as above, but when they have sprouted and started to grow 1-2 inches tall, simply pour out their water and replace it with water plus vodka or gin (inexpensive is good!). From now on, water with your vodka/water mixture and your paperwhites will grow just as beautifully, but they will be 1/3 to ½ less tall. The alcohol content should only be 5-6% in your solution or 1 part vodka or gin to 7 parts water. Here’s a recipe:

    • ½ cup vodka or gin
    • 3 ½ cups water
    • Water as needed. Do not use beer, wine or other liquors with sugar!

      closeup of inbal paperwhites
      Inbal Paperwhites.

      I like to plant paperwhites every two weeks through the holiday season, ensuring spritely flowers through deep winter. Store bulbs in a dark place at room temperature. Once the blooms are done and the flowers faded, simply shake out the gravel and save for reuse. Spent plants may be added to the compost pile or yard waste bin.

      Growing paperwhites is a fun family holiday activity with blooms appearing in as little as four weeks. Give it a try – it will soothe your gardening itch and reward everyone with cheery, bright blossoms.

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