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paper-white flowers

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala.— While paperwhite narcissus blooms may seem delicate, these bulbs can hold their liquor with the best of them.

Narcissus bulbs are native to the south of France, making Alabama winters usually too cold for them to live outdoors and come back each year. So, gardeners will often bring these bulbs inside during the winter and force them to flower. Recent research from Cornell University shows that a shot of hard liquor may aid gardeners in this process.

Setting Out Bulbs

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

These bulbs are usually available at local nurseries, home improvement centers or through catalogs any time after Oct. 1. However, she 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 the bulbs are exposed to light, flowers will begin blooming in four to six weeks. Kelley said while the term forcing is used when speaking of paperwhites in the areas in and around Alabama, 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 about growing these is that no soil is required. All the bulbs need is 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 medium so that it acts as a 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, be sure they do not stay in the water. Prolonged immersion in the water will cause the bulbs to 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 temperatures between 60 and 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. It is common to tie the cluster together or even place a small stick in the cluster of bulbs to support the stems.

These bulbs can only be forced to bloom once. After the foliage begins to turn yellow, discard the bulbs and the potting medium. Then, wash the 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.

Take a Shot

According to the research from Cornell University, a shot of hard liquor may help paperwhite flowers and foliage stay upright when fooling the bulbs to flower early and indoors. Paperwhites grown on pebbles have sturdier stems when 80 proof liquor is mixed in the water. The research shows the stems may be at least one-third shorter, but the flowers remain the same size.

To give paperwhites a stand-up shot, mix one part of any hard liquor with seven parts water, to create a five percent alcohol solution. Start the bulbs in plain water. When the bulbs sprout leaves and stems, replace the water with the alcohol solution. Research shows the alcohol reduces the amount of water plants receive, stunting the growth of the stems.

More Information

For more information on this or other home gardening topics, visit www.aces.edu. People can also contact the home grounds, gardens and home pests regional agent serving their area.

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