Forcing Paperwhites for the Holidays

Narcissus - Paperwhite

Extremely fragrant, paperwhites are a type of non-hardy narcissus related to daffodils. They are available in fall, ready to be planted for the holiday season. Beautiful as they are, when your paperwhites have finished blooming they should be discarded as they will not come back the following year.

Paperwhites will bloom 4-6 weeks after planting, depending on daylength and temperature. Planting a container or two every week for a few weeks in November will give you a constant supply of blooms for the holidays. Plant the bulbs in the same season as they are purchased-they will not keep for next year. Paperwhites can be grown in soil like any other bulb, or can be “planted” in pebbles.

To pot in soil, choose a pot that will hold your selected number of bulbs. When planted in soil, the container should hove drainage holes. The bulbs can be planted quite close together, even touching. Plant the bulbs so the pointy “nose” of the bulb and about 1/3 of the top of the bulb is showing. Water thoroughly, and allow to drain well. While growing, keep the soil just barely moist.

If you choose to use pebbles or decorative glass beads, you will need a water-tight container. Glass vases are a popular choice, particularly if you choose pretty glass beads or colorful gravel. If you plan on staking your paperwhites, use a container at least 6” deep. Or you can choose a tall glass vase that will support the leaves and flower stems. Place a layer of pebbles on the bottom of the container approximately 2” deep, then place the bulbs. Add more pebbles but make sure that at least 1/3 of the bulb remains visible. Add water until it just touches the bottom of the bulbs. This is the water level you want to maintain.

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For both planting methods, place in a cool (55-65 degrees), bright place for a week to stimulate roots, then move to a warmer (70 degrees) sunny place to encourage leaves. Turn the pot every day or two once leaves begin to lengthen so that the plant doesn't lean towards the light. Fertilizer is not necessary for paperwhites.

Forcing in water

Specially-designed vases can be found that have a molded ledge that holds the bulb just above the water. To use, simply set the bulb in the vase and add water until it just touches the bottom of the bulb. This is the water level you want to maintain.

Light & Temperature

Once buds are visible, the cooler you can keep the plants the longer they will last. They will tolerate temperatures down to 35 degrees without damage. Moving them out of direct sunlight after buds are visible will also prolong bloom.

Staking & Support

Paperwhites grown indoors often need support. You can tie a pretty ribbon around the leaves and stems, or use sticks and twine. Pushing some well branched twigs into the soil or pebbles when the leaves are about 6” tall will also work. Choose twigs that are about 12-15” tall.

Drunk Bulbs:The Alcohol Trick

If you’re tired of your paperwhites getting lanky and falling over there’s a solution. When paperwhite bulbs are watered with a 5% solution of alcohol, they will be one-half to one-third shorter (with the same size flowers) and less prone to “flopping”. Use plain water immediately after planting, but switch to watering with the alcohol solution when leaves are 1-2” tall. Be careful not to use too much alcohol, as it can be toxic to the paperwhites in high doses.

Rubbing alcohol and distilled unflavored spirits such as gin, vodka, whiskey, rum and tequila are all fine—and use the cheap stuff! Beer and wine are not appropriate because of the sugars they containyou don’t want a moldy mess. To determine the correct dilute solution, take the percentage of alcohol on the label and divide by five. (Percentage is ½ of the labelled proof)

Example 1: A bottle of gin is labeled 40 percent alcohol (80 proof). 40 divided by 5 = 8. You’ll need an 8-fold dilution to yield 5 percent alcohol, so mix 7 parts water to 1 part gin.

Example 2: Rubbing alcohol is 70 percent alcohol. 70 divided by 5 = 14. You’ll need a 14-fold dilution to yield 5 percent alcohol, so mix 13 parts water to 1 part rubbing alcohol.