By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
A surefire way to chase away the winter blues is to fill your home with fragrant flowers. And nothing is easier to grow than the sweet smelling paperwhite (Narcissus papyraceus), a bulb plant that can be coaxed into bloom with very little effort.
The correct term is actually "forcing" as you are forcing the spring-flowering bulbs to fast-forward their natural growth cycles and bloom in winter instead. Many bulbs can be forced--grape hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, and crocuses, for example--but paperwhites are probably the easiest as they don't require a long cold storage period to root.
Paperwhites produce small, star-shaped flowers that will last for several weeks. Some varieties have pure white flowers, others have white perianths (outer petals) with pale yellow "cups" in the center. Paperwhites, which come from the Mediterranean, are tender bulbs and not suitable for outdoor growing in Vermont. However, most garden centers and seed catalogs sell bulbs for indoor forcing.
If purchasing locally, choose healthy bulbs with no soft spots or signs of discoloration. Store in a cool, dry place until time to plant.
Paperwhites will bloom about four to six weeks after planting, so plan accordingly if you want flowers for the holidays or other special occasions. For continuous bloom throughout the winter, plant bulbs every two weeks from late fall through February.
Use shallow containers, about three to four inches deep, without drainage holes. You can find these specially designed containers for forcing at many garden centers. Add about two inches of washed pebbles in the bottom of the container. Gently place the bulbs, pointed side up on the gravel. They should be close, but not touching. (Five bulbs will fit nicely in a six-inch pot.) Then add enough pebbles around the bulbs to hold them in place. You can also use decorative marbles or stones if you prefer.
The tricky part is watering the bulbs. You want to add just enough water so it reaches the base of the bulbs. You don't want the bulbs to sit in water as this will cause rot. Maintain this level of water throughout the growing period. You'll probably need to replenish the water every two or three days. Don't fertilize.
Place the container in a cool, dark place (about 50 degrees F) for a few weeks until green shoots appear. Then move to full, bright light (generally, a window with southern exposure). Too little light, and the plants will grow leggy as they stretch to reach the light. Initially, room temperature should be 60 to 65 degrees F.
To prolong bloom, after the plants begin to flower, remove them from direct sunlight and place in a cooler, less sunny part of your home. Since paperwhites require zone 8 to 11 conditions, they can't be planted successfully outdoors. Discard the bulbs after flowering.
Prepotted paperwhites can be purchased at many garden stores. All you do is add water! These potted bulbs also make a nice gift, or a fun activity for your kids.