Forcing paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus tazetta) for fragrant indoor blooms is a winter tradition in our home. It begins in early November with a trip to the local garden center for a dozen paperwhite bulbs and perhaps a new pot if something special catches my eye. Otherwise, one of the old pots from summer will be pressed into service.
To plant a dozen good bulbs, I fill a 12-inch-wide pot with enough potting soil so that the tops of the bulbs will be just below the rim of the pot when planted. The bulbs are then placed shoulder to shoulder on top of the soil, pointed tip up, and enough soil is added to bury all but the tips.
The potted bulbs are watered thoroughly and placed in the basement, where it is both cool (50 to 55° F) and dark, perfect conditions to encourage root growth. I check the pot every few days to make sure the soil remains damp. When the shoots reach a height of about 3 inches, I move the plants to a sunny upstairs window where the temperature is usually between 60 and 70° F.
The plants begin to flower after about a month in the window, during which time the stems elongate to the point of requiring staking. Marjorie inserts slender bamboo stakes among the stems and then weaves green jute twine through them to form a nearly invisible supporting lattice.
Popular paperwhite varieties include ‘Bethlehem’ (creamy white petals with a yellow cup), ‘Galilee’ (pure white), ‘Israel’ (creamy yellow petals with a sulfur yellow cup), ‘Jerusalem’ (pure white), ‘Nazareth’ (soft yellow petals with a bright yellow cup), and ‘Ziva’ (pure white), all of which have a musky fragrance. ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ (yellow petals with an orange cup) takes one to two weeks longer to force and does not bloom as heavily as other varieties, but it has a sweet, fruity fragrance. We are partial to the white varieties such as ‘Ziva,’ often adding a branch or two of bright red winterberries to the arrangement at Christmas.
‘Wintersun’, one of the newer paperwhite varieties, has pale, soft yellow petals surrounding bright golden cups. Its blooms have a very light and subtle scent, perfect for cozy rooms where traditional paperwhites can be overwhelming.
Once the flowers are spent, the bulbs should be discarded. Paperwhites are not winter hardy in New England.
Keep Your Paperwhites Pickled
One problem that we have encountered with paperwhites is their tendency to grow too tall and lanky in the warm room where we like to keep them after moving them up from the basement. Recent research by Dr. William B. Miller, Professor of Horticulture at Cornell University, has produced a simple and effective way to reduce paperwhite stem and leaf growth: watering with dilute solutions of alcohol. Using this procedure, paperwhites are 1/3 to 1/2 shorter with flowers that last as long as untreated plants.
After bringing your paperwhites into the sun, water them with a 4 to 6% solution of alcohol made from any “hard” liquour. For example, to get a 5% solution from a 40% distilled spririt (gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, or tequila), you add 1 part booze to 7 parts water. This is an 8-fold dilution yielding 5% alcohol.
Use this solution, instead of water, for watering your bulbs. The result will be plants that are 1/3 shorter but with flowers just as large and fragrant. The plant will not require stakes or a woven lattice, according to Dr. Miller.
If you do not have drinking alcohol in your home, a dilution of 1part rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) to 10 parts water works just as well.
Note: For their experiments, Dr. Miller’s group grew their paperwhites in pots of pebbles rather than soil.