Spring in the Midst of Winter: Paperwhites


Almost two years ago, through a local educational grant, I was among a group of parents, students, teachers and administrators who helped establish a vegetable garden at our grade school.  We designed and installed a 25’ x 40’ garden with nine rectangular wood-framed beds, permanent above- and below-ground fencing, and an underground high-efficiency drip irrigation system.

Today, our small gardening program provides benefits that reach well beyond the garden gate.  Our small garden helps teach an environmental ethic, helps demystify the concept of food production, and helps get kids really dirty.  In December, we harvested the hearty carrots and turnips and watched our winter cover crop come up.  In January, we keep small busy hands warm inside.  Now we plant paperwhites.

Bulbs are miraculous little storehouses that hold not only a future flower, but also a stockpile of plant fuel required to produce an entire season of blooms. Here in New York’s Hudson Valley, typical hardy flower bulbs and the bulbs we eat (onions, shallots, garlic) require a chilling period before bloom or harvest time.  Cool temperatures spark an internal biochemical response that triggers the embryonic flower to start its development.  Most flower bulbs (tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocus, Dutch iris, scilla) require 16 to 18 weeks of cold before the flower is fully formed. Once the blooms have faded, the bulb is nourished by the foliage and is equipped to produce flowers next season.  It is a self-sustaining cycle.

Unlike most bulbs, Narcissus papyraceus is uncomplicated and quiet and doesn’t ask for much.  Native to the southeastern Mediterranean’s warm climates, paperwhites are coaxed into indoor bloom with very little effort.  Kept evenly moist in a bowlful of pebbles in the sun, they are reliable to the point of being foolproof.  The outcome:  fast-blooming star-shaped clusters of delicate white sweet-scented flowers—instant gratification in the dead of a northeast winter.

Paperwhites will bloom about 4 to 6 weeks after planting, so if you’d like flowers for special occasions, plan accordingly.  For continuous bloom throughout the winter, plant bulbs every two weeks from now until mid-February.

How to plant paperwhites:

  • Choose firm top size unsprouted bulbs, free of blemishes or discoloration.  Select a watertight container 4- to 5-inches in height.  Be creative—a small salad bowl, glazed pottery, clear glass vase or wide-mouthed jar is perfect for the job.  Choose a size that’s wide enough to hold a small quantity of bulbs shoulder to shoulder.
  • Spread a layer of clean river rocks, marbles, glass beads, or gravel along the bottom of the container.  Gently position the bulbs, pointed end up, on top of the medium. Paperwhites prefer a big crowd, so squeeze them in.  The more the merrier!  Add another layer of anchoring material (rocks, etc.) to fill any gaps.  Cover the bulbs up to their shoulders, leaving the pointed tips exposed.
  • To avoid bulb rot, fill the container with just enough water so it contacts the roots, but not the bulb.  Dutch farmers say to keep the water close enough so the bulb can “sniff” it, but not touch it.
  • Set the container in a cool location with indirect light.  Replenish the water every 2 to 3 days.  Be patient.  When roots develop in 2 to 3 weeks, move the container to a sunny window with southern exposure. Once the plants flower, remove the bulbs from direct sunlight and place them in a cooler place with indirect or diffused light.
  • Ahhh!  Spring in the midst of winter!


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§ 3 Responses to Spring in the Midst of Winter: Paperwhites"

  • sheri says:

    I love paperwhites and “force” them every year. The only thing I DON’T love is their tendency to flop over.
    Here’s a trick I found many years ago and it really works!
    When the stems are about 1-2″ long (and roots have formed), replace the water with a mixture of 1 part gin to 7 parts water.
    The plants will grow a little shorter but NO flopping!
    Lovely piece as always!

    • Marcie says:

      Hey, Sheri! You are always on top of things! Was reading about this great Columbia study. You can use any hard liquor (vodka, whiskey, etc.) or rubbing alcohol, but you can’t use wine or beer due to high sugar content. To determine what percentage alcohol you have, divide the proof in half (so 86 proof bourbon is 43% alcohol). Then, to convert your liquor to 5% alcohol, divide the percentage alcohol by 5 and then subtract 1. That will tell you how many parts water to mix with your 1 part alcohol. For example: 40 divided by 5 = 8. 8 minus 1 = 7. So, 7 parts water to 1 part alcohol.

  • Lea says:

    This post awakening a delightful memory for me: of being in second grade, when the teacher asked us each to bring in a bowl from home. Mine was a low, flat one with grey-glazed inside and rough, dry earthenware inside. In class, we filled our bowls lovely white stones and then placed the bulbs—funny looking things—in, pointy-side up. Somehow we “snuck” them back home(God bless mothers for knowing when to look away). What I remember most clearly is checking on the precious bowl every day—sliding it out from under my bed, giving it just a little water—until Valentine’s day. How magical to present my mother with such a “real” gift!

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