Winter can be busy, with the holidays and the weather changing. It can also be a downtime for many of us, especially if you are a gardener and enjoy the time spent with your plants. Enter the paperwhite, a pretty little plant that, similarly to amaryllis, blooms just in time to chase away the winter blues with its fragrant and cheerful blooms.
Not many plants thrive and bloom during the winter months, but paperwhites, a member of the Narcissus genus, happen to do precisely that. These pretty little relatives of daffodils are wonderfully fragrant, nice to look at, and can easily be forced to bloom indoors in the wintertime.
Paperwhites are bulbous perennials that thrive in warmer climates. Unlike many of their relatives, they do not require a chill period to wake them out of dormancy. In fact, they can be forced to bloom indoors in any climate, as they prefer the mild temperatures that most people like to maintain inside the home.
Paperwhites make a beautiful and thoughtful hostess gift around the holidays and maintain their fragrant blooms for about two weeks. The attractive foliage can be kept indoors and enjoyed as a houseplant for several weeks after the blooms have faded.
These bulbous perennials are native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, where they grow in well-drained and often rather poor soil types. Sand and rocky soil don’t bother paperwhites as long as they get sufficient moisture. They can even grow without any potting medium at all!
Let’s discuss how to grow and care for these delightful winter bloomers in your own home this winter.
Paperwhites Plant Overview
Step One: Selecting Your Bulbs
A wide range of choices are available, some with larger blooms and varying fragrances.
Whether you are ordering your bulbs online or have a great resource nearby to purchase from, the variety and health of the bulbs you choose are the first factors to consider when planting paperwhites. There are many varieties to choose from, with some having larger flowers and others having more or less fragrance.
Although they are called paperwhites, these flowers can be yellow as well. For a sweet and light fragrance, yellow varieties like ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ are sunny yellow and have a pleasing fragrance that isn’t overpowering. For a highly fragranced variety, consider ‘Ziva’ or ‘Nir’ as flowers you will smell as soon as you enter the room.
When selecting individual bulbs, look for plump and healthy bulbs. Dry bulbs might not perform well, and you don’t want to end up with duds. Ideally, you should select bulbs with a hint of green leaves peeking out at the top.
Step Two: Choose a Potting Medium
Unlike most bulbs, paperwhites can be a bit particular about their potting medium.
As most bulbs tend to be, paperwhites are a little picky about their potting medium. The interesting thing about these plants is that when forced indoors, they don’t technically need any potting soil at all! Paperwhites can be grown exclusively in water. You may have seen bulbs grown like this at the florist.
Some varieties can grow in just about anything, from glass pebbles to gravel or even sand. Others are more particular and should be given some sort of potting soil. Your specific bulbs will play a role in making this decision.
In general, if you plan to force your bulbs and plant them or save them for next year, keeping them in water is perfectly fine. Don’t leave them in the water for long after they bloom, or you could end up with water-logged and rotting bulbs.
If you choose a potting medium to plant your bulbs into, remember they need good drainage. Most types of narcissus bulbs like soil that is sandy or gravelly. Mix a fair helping of a coarse substance in with your standard potting mix in this case.
Step Three: Choose a container
Unlike their fussiness about planting medium, paperwhites are flexible about containers.
Regarding containers, the sky is the limit for these plants. Paperwhites are not as picky about their container as they are about their planting medium. If you are using water as a planting medium, a glass container is a good idea, but anything that is water-tight will typically work just fine.
A bulb vase is a great container for growing your bulbs in water. This is a glass vase that holds water in the bottom and has a narrow neck that widens again near the opening. The bulbs sit atop this narrow neck, and the roots grow downward into the water.
Another good way to pot your bulbs is to use a combination of stones or gravel with water. You can fill whatever container you fancy with your stones and then fill it in with water. Set your bulbs atop the stones to keep them from submerging in the water, but the roots will grow between the stones and into the water. Just ensure that the bottom of your bulb touches the water in either situation.
If you pot your bulbs in a well-draining potting mix, just about any container will do. However, it will be easier to monitor the amount of moisture your bulbs are exposed to if the container has drainage.
Ironically, bulbs grown directly in water fare just fine, but bulbs grown in soil should never get waterlogged. There are microorganisms in soil that will decay and break down when kept constantly wet, and this will cause your bulbs to rot.
Step Four: Find the Right Location
While paperwhites ideally thrive in full sun, achieving this indoors can be tricky.
Ideally, you want your bulbs to begin taking root as soon as possible, anchoring the plant and transporting the necessary water to encourage growth. Here, things get a little tricky, but not so tricky that it makes these bulbs difficult or fussy.
Paperwhites like to be in full sun, meaning they need six or more hours of sunlight per day. This can be difficult to maneuver with indoor plants, so we can compromise and say they need bright light for most of the day. Find a spot near a brightly lit window that receives sunlight for most of the day. This is where your paperwhites will be happiest and grow the strongest stems.
Here is the catch: you don’t want to expose the bulbs to much direct sunlight until they have begun to grow roots. For the first week or two, place your bulbs in a cool, dark space, such as a garage or other room that stays cool. This will encourage your bulbs to grow shorter, sturdier stems and leaves, which have less of a tendency to flop over.
Once your paperwhites have had a bit of cool treatment and begun to grow, you can move them into your sunny spot. You might be amazed at how quickly they grow after the light hits them. Paperwhites can bloom within just a few weeks of planting!
Step Five: Give Your Stems Support
Paperwhites may develop wobbly stems as they become taller and begin to form buds.
As your paperwhites start growing, which can seem to happen overnight, you might notice the stems are a bit wobbly. This won’t happen initially, but as they get taller and form buds, they will get heavier up top and might need some support.
Paperwhites have tall, narrow leaves and stems, and if they grow too quickly due to heat or sunlight, you could end up with floppy stems that won’t support flowers, and that won’t do at all. This is why that cool period in the beginning is important.
One decorative way to do this is to support all of the stems together by wrapping a string or decorative ribbon around them. This creates a situation where they support each other and grow upwards, becoming stronger as they do.
Step Six: Spike the Water
Introducing alcohol to the bulb’s growing water can further restrict the growth of its green parts.
How Does Alcohol Affect Growth?
The goal of stunting the growth of the stems and leaves is to make them grow sturdier, with less chance of flopping over once the buds form and weigh them down.
Adding alcohol to the water also stunts the growth of the green portions of the plant by about a third without affecting the size or quality of the flowers. When it comes to this step, moderation is key. Too much alcohol, and you enter into the realm of toxicity.
A solution with about four to six percent alcohol to 94-96% water is the sweet spot, so make sure to measure. One part 70% alcohol to 10 parts water should put you in a safe zone depending on the alcohol concentration.
The right type of alcohol is important for this step. Beer and wine are out, as they are full of sugar, which won’t do your plants any favors. Use vodka, whiskey, or gin lying if you have them. If not, a bottle of isopropyl will do in a pinch. You’ll have to calculate the ratio based on the concentration of your specific alcohol to make sure that you don’t overdo it.
Pickling the Bulbs
Pour off the water in the container and refill it with your alcohol mixture. Do this once your shoots are one to two inches tall and some roots have formed. You can add alcohol to the water without pouring it off, but this will not give the same results. You want the alcohol to reach the lower extremities of the roots and “pickle” the bulbs.
The reason this works is not entirely clear, but experts believe that the alcohol slows the plant’s absorption of water. This causes a bit of stress to the plant, which inhibits the growth slightly.
Step Seven: Sit Back and Enjoy the Bloom
If you’ve opted for a potted medium, it’s crucial to maintain proper moisture levels.
On average, you should see blooms from your paperwhites within about four to six weeks after planting. There is little to do during this time if you have chosen to grow them in water. If you’ve chosen to grow them in a potting medium, it is important to give them adequate moisture.
Make sure not to let the soil dry out completely. Instead, water your bulbs whenever the top inch of soil is dry. Be careful not to overwater if your container lacks drainage. You don’t want them sitting in wet soil.
Your blooms should last between two to three weeks once they begin to open. This means that if you want to have blooming paperwhites in time for the holidays, you’ll want to get them growing in the first few weeks of November.
Step Eight: After Blooming Care
Once your paperwhites have finished flowering, trim the flower stalks to the plant’s base.
After your paperwhites finish blooming, cut the flower stalks down to the base of the plant. From here, you can enjoy the rest of the plant like any other houseplant until the rest of the foliage dies back.
This could be as late as July or as soon as April, depending on your care and the temperature and amount of light they get. Keep them watered as usual.
Step Nine: What to do With Your Bulbs Now
The same bulbs can last for three to four years with proper storage.
Once the foliage dies back, you will be left with bare bulbs again. So, what should you do now? Well, there are a couple of options. If you prefer not to be bothered, you can simply toss them. You could also plant them outside if you live in a warmer climate, and you’ll possibly see them pop up again in the fall.
You can also do this if you prefer to preserve them for next fall. The same bulbs could possibly last for three to four years with proper storage. Now, they can’t be stored for more than a year, even if you do it right, and that would be pushing it. If you don’t plan to grow them again within six months, I would say that storing them isn’t worth the trouble.
If you choose to store them, there are a few important steps to take to make sure that they don’t dry out too much or rot and grow mold:
- Remove your bulbs from the water or potting mix, and give them a good rinse with clean water. Make sure you remove all traces of soil, as this can decay in storage, causing the bulbs to rot.
- The next step is called curing, and it involves leaving the bulbs exposed to the air in a cool, dry room. You don’t want them to dry out so much that they shrivel up because then they are unlikely to come back. Just allow them to be dry to the touch on the outside. The skin should get a bit papery when this happens.
- Now, simply wrap them in paper or place them in a paper bag and store them someplace that stays cool. You don’t want them to freeze, as these bulbs are frost-tender. Just keep them cool and dry for a few months until you are ready to repeat the process over again.
Paperwhites are a simple way for plant lovers to brighten the dreary winter. They also make a beautiful gift if you have the time to get them started. A pot of paperwhites about to bloom is just about one of the sweetest hostess gifts I can think of. These pretty plants are low maintenance and bring beauty and a wonderful fragrance to the home at a time when very few flowers are in bloom.