Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus, a sub-species of Narcissus tazetta) are popular indoor plants for winter and the holiday season. Unlike other narcissus, paperwhites don't require a chilling period, so forcing them into bloom indoors is as easy as putting the bulbs in water and waiting. The fragrant flowers bloom within about three to six weeks of planting, for almost instant gratification.
When to Force a Bloom
Paperwhite bulbs can be forced into bloom almost anytime, but it is very common to do it over the winter holiday season or in the late winter as a tempting harbinger of springtime just around the corner. Because they typically take four to six weeks to bloom, you'll need to time the planting so that blooms appear when you want them. For Christmas blooms, for example, plant them 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.
- Working time: 15 minutes per pot
- Total time: 4 to 6 weeks until the bulbs bloom
- Material cost: $2 to $5 per bulb
What You'll Need
- Work gloves
- Planting pots without drainage holes
- Stones, marbles, or gravel
- Paperwhite narcissus bulbs
Paperwhites are the original “Just Add Water” plant. While paperwhite bulbs can be planted in soil, more commonly they are grown in water in pots or dishes with some stones or marbles to anchor them in place. Paperwhite bulbs for forcing are typically available at retailers or online sources from about October 1 through late winter, but may not be available during the outdoor growing season, when nurseries are preparing their stock of bulbs to ship for winter forcing.
Prepare a Container
Select a container that is about 3 to 4 inches deep (8 to 10 cm) and that has no drainage holes. You won't be adding soil and you do not want a container so deep that the bulbs will be completely submerged.
Spread an inch or two of stones, marbles or even gravel, along the bottom of the container. Whatever material you choose, it should be clean.
Position the Bulbs
Position the paperwhite bulbs, pointed-end-up, on top of the stone layer. Tight spacing is fine; paperwhites not only look better in a large group, but the tight fit will help keep them from toppling over.
Add another layer of stones to fill in any gaps and cover the bulbs up to their shoulders. The pointed tips should still be showing. Do not bury the bulbs completely.
Avoid Skin Irritation
Some people develop skin irritation from handling narcissus bulbs. Wear work gloves to avoid this.
Add water so that the level just reaches the base of the bulbs. 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 Bulbs
The bulbs don’t need light at this point and they prefer to be kept on the cool side, at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius). Unlike other bulbs that are forced, you do not need to put your paperwhites into darkness. An open location makes it easier to check the water level.
Check your bulbs daily to see if they need more water. You want the level to remain just touching the base of the bulbs. They will slowly uptake some of the water and you will lose some to evaporation, but you shouldn't need to add copious amounts of water.
Move the Pots 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 plants get too warm or they’ll grow leggy. Most windows are a little cool in winter, so don't be afraid to get the pot close to the windowpane.
Once the flowers appear, the blooms will last longer if moved out of direct sunlight to a cool spot with indirect or diffused light. If you keep your house warm in the winter, paperwhites will last longer if you temporarily move them to a cooler room when you are not home.
Your forced paperwhites will bloom for a week or two before fading. For continuous blooms, plant pots every two weeks in the late fall and early winter.
Tips for Forcing Paperwhites
- Some people develop mild skin irritation from handling narcissus bulbs. Wearing work gloves or rubber gloves can prevent this.
- Although problems are rare with paperwhites, one annoyance is their tendency to become top-heavy and fall over. Watering your paperwhites with alcohol can help keep them from falling over. Short bamboo stakes and twine can also be used to support the stalks.
- Paperwhites have a distinct scent. Some people find it pleasant, others find it odd. If you notice an unusual fragrance in your room, check to see if it is coming from your paperwhites.
- Once they've bloomed, paperwhite bulbs should generally be discarded. They will not bloom again indoors. In mild climates (zones 8 to 11) they can sometimes be planted in the outdoor garden after they are finished with their indoor blooming. If planted outdoors, paperwhites may require a full season before they resume a normal bloom cycle.