The powerful perfume of paperwhites

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Tue., Nov. 13, 2012
- Contributed Photo

Although I still have a few calendulas, Johnny jump-ups and mums blooming in the garden, for the most part, the growing season is over, and if I want flowers, they need to be indoor ones. One of my favorites is the heady-scented paperwhite narcissus, perfect for brightening up dreary wintry days.

Paperwhites are not a single plant species but refer to several species of the Tazetta division of daffodils. They do not require a prolonged cool, dark period for root growth before leaf growth begins, unlike other daffodil species. The three kinds usually sold at garden centers at this time of year 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 a few other varieties which can be purchased from mail order sources. All make lovely, fragrant winter pot plants.

The name paperwhite comes from the papery feeling of the flower petals as they fade and dry. It takes about 4 to 6 weeks after planting for buds to appear. You can plant a pot of paperwhites up every 2 to 3 weeks for a continuous succession of blooms throughout the winter months. Buy all the bulbs at one time, however, and store unplanted bulbs in a cool location like a cellar, but don’t let them freeze.

Since all the nutritional requirements are contained in the bulbs, you do not need a fertile potting medium. Bulbs can be planted in marble chips, washed gravel, small colored stones, or a soil-less potting mix. The planting container should be water-tight and does not need to be very deep.

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. Use a hefty container because paperwhites tend to be top-heavy.

Add enough water to just reach to the bottom of the bulbs if they are placed in gravel or marble chips. Too much water will cause them to rot. Bulbs planted in a soil-less potting mix can be watered like regular houseplants. Place the containers in a dimly-lighted, cool (45 degree F) spot until roots form. This should take 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 2 to 3 inches in height, it is time to move the container to a bright, cool area - about 55 degrees F. Don’t let it sit in a hot, sunny window, however. Water only enough to cover the roots or keep the potting medium moderately moist.

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. Even though bulbs do contain nutrients for plant growth, your paperwhites will benefit from a dilute liquid fertilizer application at this time. 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 because 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.

When finished flowering, add the bulbs to your compost pile. 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 attractive expendables. They bring some beauty and fragrance into your home during the gloomy winter months. Pot some more up next fall.

If you have questions on growing paperwhites or on any other home or garden topic, call, toll-free, 877-486-6271, visit the website or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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