Paperwhite narcissus

Narcissus papyraceus


A close seasonal companion of amaryllis are Paperwhites.  Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) are native to the Mediterranean region and are related to daffodils.  Like amaryllis, paperwhites will not survive our cold winters, and just as we do with amaryllis, many of us in the frigid North have created a winter tradition of forcing their blooms to decorate our homes.  However, unlike amaryllis, paperwhites bulbs cannot be saved to bloom again.

Paperwhite bulbs are considerably smaller than amaryllis bulbs and will bloom fairly quickly after planting–in about three to five weeks.  You can extend your enjoyment of the season by planting multiple containers of the bulbs over several weeks.  Because the stems of paperwhites are slim and seemingly delicate, they look best when clumped in groups of uneven numbers–three, five, seven, etc., depending on the size of your container.  The bulbs should be placed close to each other, but not touching.

Most commonly, paperwhites bulbs are planted in water.  You can use clear glass containers without drainage salvaged from long dead bouquets or purchased from thrift stores.  Perhaps you were fortunate enough to have inherited a crystal vase from your grandmother.  There are specially made bulb vases that have a reservoir for water at the base and a top section that will hold the bulb in place.

If not using a bulb vase, place river stones, colored marbles, or decorative glass beads at the base to a depth of one or two inches.  Carefully arrange paperwhite bulbs on the prepared surface.  The water level should barely touch the base of the bulb and as roots develop, only cover the roots.  Do not cover the bulb itself as that may cause it to rot.  You will need to change the water several times a week to keep it fresh.

If you prefer, paperwhites can be grown in soil.  Similar to amaryllis, use a moist all-purpose potting soil in a shallow pot with good drainage and leave about one-quarter of the bulb exposed.  Once the bulbs have begun to sprout, make certain they have bright light.

Paperwhites have a tendency to grow too tall and spindly, but science has come to the rescue for that!  Research at Cornell University has shown that adding alcohol to paperwhites grown in water are shorter and have stronger stems.  And yes, this means hard liquor from your liquor cabinet.  Do not try this treatment until there has been significant root development and the alcohol needs to be sufficiently diluted.  For an 80% proof spirit, use one part alcohol to seven parts water.  Do not use beer or wine–too much sugar.

For more specific information about paperwhites and alcohol, check out the Cornell University article entitled “Pickling your Paperwhites” at:

Once your bulbs have bloomed, enjoy the show!  Amaryllis and paperwhites give us that needed hint of green and color in the bleak midwinter.  As one anonymous wise woman once said, forcing winter bulbs satisfies two desires:  We can relish flowers during the holiday season, and quench that early spring fever.