Despite the relatively warm weather we’ve been experiencing here in Connecticut, the short days and leafless trees are a reminder that winter will set in shortly. Some plants are in denial as this dandelion just sent up a few blossoms!
I look to flowering houseplants as well as holiday plants to get me through these dreary winter months. A seasonal favorite of mine is the heady-scented paperwhite narcissus. Actually, the term paperwhite refers to a number of varieties of the Tazetta division of daffodils. Unlike other daffodil types, these do not require a prolonged cool, dark period for root growth before leaf growth begins. Three varieties most often sold in garden centers are the common but endearing ‘Paper White’ narcissus, a golden yellow variety, ‘Soleil d’Or’ and the Chinese sacred lily, (Narcissus tazetta ‘Orientalis’). There are other varieties to be had from mail order sources. All make lovely, fragrant winter pot plants. If you find the fragrance too overpowering look for some of the newer hybrids like ‘Inbal’ with lighter scents.
The name paperwhite comes from the papery feeling of the flower petals as they fade and dry. Generally bulbs will bloom 4 to 6 weeks after planting. A continuous succession of blooms from the holidays to early spring can be achieved by planting at 2 to 3 week intervals. Buy your entire paperwhite supply at one time and store unplanted bulbs in a cool (50 degrees F) but not cold location like a cellar.
Since all the nutritional requirements are contained in the bulbs you do not need a fertile potting medium. Some commonly used media include marble chips, washed gravel, small colored stones or my choice, soilless potting mix. The planting container should be water tight if bulbs are not going into a pot with potting mix and it does not need to be that deep. On the other hand if it is too shallow the roots have a tendency to push the whole plant up.
Fill your container one-half full with the potting medium. Set bulbs with the points up on top of the medium as close as possible without touching. Place additional medium around the bulbs to support them from toppling over. Because they can be top heavy, a hefty container is best.
If using media like marble chips or stones add enough water to just reach and cover the bottom half-inch of the bulbs. Don’t let more water cover the bulbs because they will rot. Bulbs planted in a soilless medium can be watered like regular houseplants. Place the containers in a dimly lit, cool (55 – 60 degrees F) spot until roots form in approximately 10 to 14 days. Check the water level occasionally and add more if necessary.
After 2 weeks the foliage should start to grow. When it reaches 4 to 5 inches in height, it is time to move the container to a bright, warmer area about 60 – 65 degrees F. During the winter months plants will do fine on a bright sunny windowsill. Water only enough to cover the roots or to keep the potting medium moist but not saturated.
The increased temperature and light levels will encourage leaf growth and flower bud emergence. Turn the container daily so the plants will not lean toward the light source. Soon buds will burst open filling the room with a heady fragrance.
The most common problem encountered in growing paperwhites is long, leggy foliage and floppy flower stems. This is usually because the growing temperatures were too high. Plants with extra-long leaves can be encircled with a piece of green yarn. Another solution is to use the blooms as cut flowers.
Those willing to experiment may want to try the 5% solution. Cornell researchers discovered if after the bulb starts growing the water is poured off and replaced with a 5% alcohol solution (just hard liquor or rubbing alcohol – no beer or wine) plants grow much shorter. For more information and dilutions, check out: http://www.hort.cornell.edu/miller/bulb/Pickling_your_Paperwhites.pdf
When finished flowering, compost the bulbs. They have exhausted their energy supply and will not bloom again. Wash out the containers and if marble chips, stones or gravel were used, soak in water and detergent, rinse, and let dry before storing.
Consider paperwhites as beautiful expendables. They brought some cheer into your home during the gloomy winter months. Next year begin with a new supply.