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paperwhite flowers

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala.—It’s evident that spring has arrived when the smell of flowering paperwhite narcissus is in the air. However, people can bring this smell in their home this winter. During the dreary winter months, people can force a paperwhite narcissus to flower, bringing a breath of fresh air inside the house.

Mallory Kelley, an Alabama Extension home grounds, gardens and pests regional agent, said paperwhite narcissus are easy and foolproof enough that forcing them to flower is a good project, even for the newest gardener. They also make great gifts and beautiful decorations for the home.

Setting Bulbs

Paperwhites are the easiest indoor bulbs to force and are usually available at local nurseries, home improvement centers or through catalogs. When purchasing bulbs, gardeners should make sure they are buying from a reputable dealer.

Kelley said it is a good idea not to set out all of the paperwhite bulbs at once.

“Set bulbs out every 10 days so the blooms will not come all at once,” Kelley said. “In doing this, you will have blooms from December until spring.”

Once people set the bulbs, they should begin to see flowers in four to six weeks.

Kelley said although the term “forcing” is used when speaking of paperwhites in our area of the Southeast, it might be better expressed as “fooling.”

“What gardeners really do is fool the bulb into thinking winter is over and it is time to bloom,” she said.


Paperwhites grow best in a shallow pot or bowl with no drainage holes in the bottom. Kelley said the best thing of growing these is no soil is required; the bulbs only need water.

“Start by finding a container and filling the bottom with gravel, small stones or even fun things like colored beads or marbles,” Kelley said. “Then place as many paperwhite bulbs as will fit on top of the gravel, with the pointed side up.”

Place the bulbs down in the gravel or marbles so they act as support to hold the bulbs in place, but do not bury the bulbs. Leave at least half of the bulb exposed. Add water up to the base of the bulbs and maintain it at this level. Once the bulbs begin to send out roots, make sure it does not stay in the water or the bulb will rot.

Ready to Flower

“When you are ready for your bulbs to begin growing and flowering, place the container in a warm, sunny location,” Kelley said. “Brighter spots are better, as it will make the stems shorter and stronger when they bloom.”

Growers should add water to the container because evaporation and root uptake will deplete the supply. Avoid disturbing the bulbs after planting, as the roots are fragile.

There may be a slight difference in flower timing depending on the temperatures. Higher temperatures encourage weak growth and poor flowering. Bulbs immediately placed at a temperature of 60 to 70°F will bloom in about six weeks. For later bloom, delay setting them out or maintain the pot at 50°F, and then moved to the higher temperature area.

For a late spring bloom, the bulbs can be stored dry at 50°F. When potted, these will usually bloom in three to four weeks. The cooler the room, the longer it will take the bulbs to flower and the longer they will remain in bloom.

If light levels are low, the stalks grow tall before blooming and then fall over. Many people will tie the cluster together and even place a small stick in the cluster to hold them up.

Paperwhite narcissus are tender bulbs that will not overwinter outdoors easily. Growers can only forced the bulbs once. After the foliage begins to turn yellow, discard the bulbs and the potting medium. Growers can wash gravel or marbles and store them for use again next year. Be sure to wash containers immediately and thoroughly to remove salts and lime deposits.

More Information

For more home gardening information, visit www.aces.edu or contact your county Extension office.

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