These bright, peppery-scented bulb flowers are actually members of the daffodil family, Narcissus tazetta. They require no cold treatment and grow so readily they don’t even require potting soil. Just a bowl of pebbles and some water are all they need to send their roots gripping firmly downward and their stems racing for the sky.
Paperwhites are available from many floral and garden retailers. They’re available as bare bulbs for those who want to plant their own. They’re also sold in easy-to-use kits and even as pre-grown potted plants for those who want the flowers with a minimum of fuss.
The technique of growing paperwhites without potting soil is both easy and rife with possibilities. Paperwhites make a fun project for the kids. They can also be turned into artful arrangements or handsome gifts. Once you know the basics, the rest is up to your own inclination. Following are tips from the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center in New York City on how to grow paperwhites on water.
- Easy does it – no forcing required. Forcing is the term for fooling bulb flowers into thinking it’s spring. Many bulbs, such as tulips and hyacinths, require a period of cold treatment as part of this process. But paperwhite narcissi hail from the temperate shores of the southeastern Mediterranean. As a result, paperwhites will readily bloom without the cold pre-treatment that most other spring-blooming bulbs require. Once they sniff water and feel sunshine, they’re off to the races, coming into flower three to five weeks after planting.
- Choose firm plump bulbs. Paperwhite bulbs should feel firm and heavy in the hand, with no bruises or nicks. The bulb’s papery outer tunic can be torn or even gone. Bigger bulbs are better – they produce more stems and flowers. For pre-New Year’s bloom, select ‘Ziva’ paperwhites, which bloom earlier than other varieties. Store unplanted bulbs in a cool dry place out of the sun. Do not store in enclosed spaces (such as a refrigerator) with apples or other ripening fruit that release ethylene gas, which can damage the embryonic flower inside the bulb.
- Wanted: water and a firm foundation. Bulbs of all kinds don’t need fertilizer to flower in the first year. They store their own food. In fact most of a bulb’s bulk is nothing but food storage. That’s why soil isn’t necessary to grow them. Paperwhites only need something, such as pebbles, to wrap their roots around. Many people see nursery-grown paperwhites in soil and assume this is the best medium for home-growing too. It isn’t - professional growers use different growing techniques and must also consider ease of shipping.
- Choosing the container. Any watertight container at least four- (or better five-) inches deep will do. Choose a size that’s big enough to hold a quantity of bulbs positioned shoulder to shoulder on a bed of rocks, marbles, etc. Be creative. Great container choices include: vases, glazed pottery, fruit or salad bowls, raised compotes, planters, cachepots, or cut-glass bowls. Even plain old plastic containers that can be hidden or double-potted inside pretty baskets or decorative containers will work.
- Anchors away. The medium you use to hold the bulbs in place can also be a creative choice. Consider clean river-washed rocks, various stones, marbles, glass beads, large-pebbled gravel or marble chips as “anchors” to position the bulbs in the bowl and hold them steady once growth begins. These can be found at garden centers, toyshops, craft stores and elsewhere. For fun, choose colorful beads or stones that look dramatic wet or dry. Place a layer of these several inches deep in the container.
- Hold on tight. Then place as many bulbs into the container as can fit onto the stone layer. Pack them in firmly, with the pointy-ends up. The more bulbs, the better - they’ll hold one another upright and provide maximum bloom. Then hand-place a second layer of stones around and in between the bulbs, sliding them in to hold the bulbs in place. Leave the bulb shoulders (where the tops narrow) and necks exposed.
- Add water! Add enough water so it rises to just beneath the bottoms of the bulbs themselves. The Dutch like to say “close enough so the bulb can ‘sniff’ the water, but not touching.” If the bulbs are actually sitting in water they will rot. Just the roots need be in the water. Note: clear containers offering side views are an advantage if you are nervous about maintaining the proper water levels. Also, the roots themselves have an interesting look. When no underwater view is possible, nudge a stone out of place and dip below with a finger to see whether more water is needed.
- Stand back for safety. Once rooting begins, rapid growth commences. The roots can be very strong and actually propel bulbs upwards out of the container if the bulbs are not solidly anchored at the shoulders by their stones or pebbles. Another reason to pack them tight!
- Waiting for bloom. Set the planted bulbs in a cool spot with bright light. The brighter the light, the less “leggy” the plants will be (legginess is a result of stretching for light). Early in the winter, expect blooms in four to six weeks. To get blooms for the December holidays, plant before Thanksgiving. Later in the season, the bulbs will bloom faster - in as little as 2 or 3 weeks.
- Floppy foliage. If leggy plants get floppy, try securing the growth by tying a circle of ribbon or raffia around the whole bunch, approximately two thirds of the way up the stems. If that should fail, paperwhites also make great cut flowers!
- Rarely life after death. After bloom, paperwhites are generally spent, worn out, fini! They won’t grow again indoors, so toss them out or compost. (Unless you live in USDA Zones 9-11 where you can consider planting them outdoors. There, they MIGHT come back as landscape plants, IF they get a sufficient die-back period for recharging their bulbs for next year’s bloom.) Carefully rinse and wash all containers, stones, marbles and other paraphernalia for reuse.