Besides comfort food, snow days, and rest from heavy garden work, winter brings the opportunity to enjoy a little “preview” of spring daffodils indoors. I’m talking about Narcissus papyraceus or paperwhites. Once the holiday decorations are stowed, your Christmas tree has been put out to the curb for recycling and winter looms, delicate clusters of fragrant white flowers can help see you through until sprouts of green begin to appear outside.
Paperwhites belong to a group of daffodils that is native to the Mediterranean. Even though it isn’t hardy outdoors for most of us, it can be easily grown indoors – you don’t even need soil. The bulbs are usually available beginning in late fall and can be ordered online or procured at your favorite local garden center. Forcing paperwhites to bloom is very easy, even for you non-gardeners out there. You’ll enjoy weeks of cheery blooms that will pleasantly perfume an entire room. You can prolong the beauty by staggering your planting, or planting a portion of your bulbs at 1-2 week intervals.
Even though bulbs don’t look like much when you get them, they are very much alive and need to be treated with care. For best results, plant your bulbs as quickly as possible. If you need to wait a while, at least open up the bag they’re in to allow for air circulation and store them in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to plant.
Next, decide if you want to plant your paperwhite bulbs in soil in a pot or if you’d like to go soil-free in a glass container. I prefer the soil-free way because it’s not as messy to deal with indoors and I like the look of the bulbs and the growing roots among the decorative stones and glass. A glass container also lets you easily see when roots are forming, so you know when to move your bulbs to a sunny location.
Forcing Paperwhites in Potting Soil
Fill your chosen container about 3/4 of the way with good quality potting mix. Drizzle in some water and mix, adding enough water to make the soil about as moist as a wrung out sponge. Place your bulbs pointy end up on the soil’s surface. You can plant more than one bulb in the container – just space them closely, even touching is fine. Then, add enough potting mix to the container to cover the bulbs up to their “necks” – the pointy end should be exposed.
Paperwhites are considered toxic to cats, particularly the bulbs. We keep our paperwhite bulbs and blooms out of reach of our four curious cats to be safe!
Next, water the soil until it’s moist but not soggy. Place the container in a cool spot in your home away from direct sunlight so the bulbs can root. Water the container when the soil feels dry about 1 inch below the surface. After about 3 weeks, you should have some roots. Give a gentle tug on the bulb – if you meet with some resistance, you have roots and the container can now be moved to a sunny window.
Any clear glass vessel will work for forcing paperwhites. I like to use the same glass containers I use for planting a terrarium because they’re so pretty. Simply begin by filling the container about two inches full with small gravel, decorative terrarium gravel, or decorative glass stones. Get creative with the colors if you like!
Place the bulbs, pointed end up, on the surface of the gravel and kind of nestle them in. Again, you can plant multiples to the extent that your container has space – place the bulbs closely together. Next, pour some water into your container until you can see that the water level reaches just below the bottoms of the bulbs. Don’t overdo it or your bulbs will be sitting in water and will rot before they can grow.
Just as in the previous method, place the container in a cool place, away from direct light and maintain the water level to just below the bottoms of the bulbs. Within a few weeks, you should see the beginnings of the little roots sprouting from the bulbs. You can also gently lift the bulbs to see if there are roots. Once you have roots, move the plants to a sunny window and wait for the show!
Once the bulbs are finished blooming, they will not bloom again, and should be composted. I know, it’s sad. BUT, pretty soon you’ll have your spring garden to cheer you up!