Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) are popular indoor plants for winter with their clusters of fragrant, white blooms. Unlike other narcissus, paperwhites don't require a chilling period, so forcing them to bloom indoors is as easy as putting the bulbs in water and waiting. While paperwhite bulbs can be planted in soil, more commonly they are grown in pots or dishes of water with some stones or marbles to anchor them in place. Paperwhite bulbs are typically available at retailers from around Oct. 1 through late winter. However, they might not be easy to find during the outdoor growing season.
When to Force Paperwhites to Bloom
Paperwhite bulbs can be forced into bloom almost anytime. But it is very common to do it over the winter months as a tempting harbinger of springtime just around the corner. Because the bulbs typically take four to six weeks to bloom, you'll need to time the planting for blooms to appear when you want them. For instance, if you want Christmas blooms, plant a week or so before Thanksgiving.
Paperwhite bulbs can be stored for no more than about two months before they begin to lose their viability. So don't purchase them too far in advance of planting.
Equipment / Tools
- Work gloves
- Planting pot without drainage holes
- Stones, marbles, or gravel
- Paperwhite narcissus bulb
Prepare a Container
Select a container that's around 3 to 4 inches deep without drainage holes. You won't be adding soil, and you don't want a container so deep that the bulb will be completely submerged. Spread an inch or two of stones, marbles, or gravel along the bottom of the container. Whatever material you choose, it should be clean.
Position the Bulb
Position the paperwhite bulb with its pointed end up on top of the stone layer. Add another layer of stones to fill in any gaps and nearly cover the bulb. The pointed tip of the bulb should still be showing. If you have multiple bulbs for one container, tight spacing is fine. Paperwhites not only look better in a group, but the tight fit will help keep them from toppling over.
Some people develop skin irritation from handling narcissus bulbs. Wear work gloves to avoid this.
Add enough water to the container, so the level just reaches the base of the bulb. Allowing the bottom of the bulb to sit in water will stimulate growth, but covering the entire bulb with water can cause it to rot.
Root the Bulb
At this point, the bulb should be kept on the cool side at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius). It doesn't need light at this point. However, unlike some other bulbs, you don't need to keep your paperwhite bulb in darkness. An open location will make it easier to check the water level.
Check your bulb daily to see whether it needs more water. You want the level to remain just touching the base of the bulb. It will slowly take up some water, and you will lose some to evaporation. But you shouldn't need to add copious amounts of water throughout the rooting process.
Move the Pot Into Sunlight
When you see roots developing, it is time to move the container to a sunny window. The sunnier the better, but try not to let the plant get too warm or it will grow leggy. Most windows are cool during winter, so don't be afraid to place the pot close to the windowpane.
Enjoy Your Blooms While They Last
Paperwhites will bloom for a week or two before fading. Once the flowers appear, the blooms will last longer if you move the pot out of direct sunlight to a cool spot with indirect or diffused light. For continuous blooms, plant pots every two weeks in the late fall and early winter.
Tips for Forcing Paperwhites
Although problems are rare with paperwhites, one annoyance is their tendency to become top-heavy and fall over. Watering your paperwhites with an alcohol solution can help to keep them from falling over. Short bamboo stakes and twine can also be used to support the stalks.
Once they've bloomed, paperwhite bulbs should generally be discarded. They will not bloom again indoors. In mild climates, they sometimes can be planted in an outdoor garden after they are finished with their indoor blooming. If planted outdoors, paperwhites might require a full season before they resume a normal bloom cycle.
Finally, paperwhites have a distinct scent. Some people find it pleasant while others find it odd. If you notice an unusual fragrance in your room, check to see whether it is coming from your paperwhites.
Bruynzeel, Derk P. Bulb Dermatitis. Contact Dermatitis, vol. 37, no. 2, 1997, pp. 70–77., doi:10.1111/j.1600-0536.1997.tb00042.x