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 containers or dishes of water with some stones or marbles to anchor them in place. Paperwhite bulbs are typically available at retailers from the first of October 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, start forcing the bulbs a week or so before Thanksgiving.
Paperwhite bulbs can be stored for no more than two months before they begin to lose their viability. So, don't purchase your bulbs too far in advance of planting.
Equipment / Tools
- Work gloves
- Shallow container without drainage holes
- Stones, marbles, or gravel
- Paperwhite narcissus bulbs
Prepare a Container
Select a container that's about 3 to 4 inches deep and does not have drainage holes. You won't be adding soil, and you don't want water to drain. Spread 1 to 2 inches of stones, marbles, or gravel along the bottom of the container. Whatever material you choose, it should be clean and preferably brand new.
Position the Bulbs
Position the paperwhite bulbs with the pointed end up on top of the stone layer. Add another layer of stones to fill in any gaps and nearly cover the bulbs. The pointed tip of the bulbs should still be showing. Tight spacing is fine. Paperwhites not only look better in a group, but the tight fit will provide support and help keep them from toppling over.
Some people develop skin irritation from handling narcissus bulbs. Wear work gloves to avoid this.
Add tap water to the container so the level just reaches the base of the bulbs. Allowing the bottom of the bulb to sit in water will stimulate root growth, but covering the entire bulb with water can cause it to rot.
Root the Bulbs
At this point, the bulbs should be kept on the cool side at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius). The bulbs don't need light at this point. However, unlike some other bulbs, you don't need to keep your paperwhite bulbs in darkness. An open location will make it easier to check the water level.
Inspect your container daily to determine if it needs more water. You want the level to just touch the base of the bulb. The bulbs 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 don't permit the growing bulbs to get too warm or they will stretch and become 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 and water solution can keep foliage stunted but with full-sized blooms. You can also use short bamboo stakes and twine to support the stalks.
Once they've bloomed, discard the paperwhite bulbs. 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 and very sweet-smelling. If you notice an unusual fragrance in your room, it might be 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