FORCING PAPERWHITES TO BLOOM
Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) are a very beautiful and fragrant flower that can be started easily from bulbs. You can usually find the bulbs at most garden centers as early as September through mid winter. They are extremely popular for the holiday season and perfect for the indoors. Unlike most narcissus, paperwhites don’t require a chilling period. Forcing them to bloom can be achieved as easily as placing the bulbs in water and waiting for them to pop. Like many of the horticulture therapy projects here at Sunshine Care, A Memory Care Community in Poway California, forcing paperwhites to bloom is a form of gardening with instant gratification. Their distinct fragrant flowers can bloom within a month’s time.
While paperwhites can be grown in soil, most times you will find them placed in pots or dishes with just pebbles. There also exist vases with necks designed specifically for bulb growing. The vase is filled with water and the bulb is placed root end down (pointed end up) about 1 inch into the water at the neck.
The most common way to force the paperwhite bulbs is to acquire a container about 3”-4” deep with no holes in the bottom. If you have a basket or a pot you prefer to use to grow the bulbs, line the container with plastic to keep in the moisture. Fill the container about half the way up with gravel or pebbles, decorative or not. Squeeze as many bulbs as you wish into the container, fitting them close together. Again, place them pointed end up. They not only look more attractive in a large group of 6-8 bulbs but the tight fit will help the bulbs from toppling over. Add some more stones up to the bulb’s shoulders to fill in the gaps and keep them upright. Keep the pointed end above the stones an inch or so. Once you have the bulbs nestled into position, add water just until the level hits the base of the bulbs. Make sure not to have the bulbs sitting too deep in the water. This may cause rotting of the bulbs. Once the bulbs are greeted with water, the rooting process commences.
The bulbs don’t need light at the point, so we have the residents place their potted creations in a dark area, covered by a box placed upside down over them. A cool area of the house around 65 degrees was found to keep them happy. We had the residents check them every other day to add water. Not much additional water will be required, just enough to compensate for what the bulbs soak up and for evaporation.
This entire process can be done in pots with your favorite potting soil as well.
After a couple of weeks of playing Peek-a-Boo with your arrangement, you will notice root development and the pointed ends will start to show green shoots. The shoots should be about 2”-3” in height.
It’s now time to move them to a sunny window or outside for maximum sunlight. If you choose to place them outside and the weather is cold, bring them in at night. Direct sunlight will keep the stems from growing too leggy. If the stems grow too tall and too fast, they will topple over when the blooms appear.
A simple trick to keep the stems from becoming too leggy when growing in the sunlight, is with the use of alcohol. When paperwhite bulbs are grown in a dilute 5% solution of alcohol, the plants will grow about 30-50% of their normal height. Bloom size and bloom time will not be affected and the stems will become sturdier. Obviously, the resulting water stress is enough to stunt their growth but not to interfere with the blooming process.
I’ve heard of people using gin and vodka as an alcohol source but I prefer using 70% Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol. For those of you whose math skills are a bit rusty, here’s the way to make your dilution rate.
Take the % alcohol number and divide by 5. In my case, 70 divided by 5 = 14. Then subtract 1 which gives you 13. So the ratio is 13 parts water to one part alcohol. You now have a 5% solution to use to water your paperwhites.
For those of you that have a supply of vodka or other booze at home, use the same formula.
Vodka of 80 proof is 40% alcohol. Forty divided by 5 = 8, subtract 1 and you are left with 7. Add 7 parts water with 1 part vodka to give you a 5% solution for watering purposes. Stay away from beer and wine due to the high sugar content. Rubbing alcohol is cheap so don’t waste your best spirits for this purpose. I wouldn’t.
In a couple more weeks you will have fresh fragrant blooms for your home or garden. Shoot for starting this process around Thanksgiving to have blooms for the Christmas season. Baskets or pots of paperwhites make great gifts for the holidays. Our residents were very proud of their creations. They enjoyed the entire process from start to finish. They made their own holiday presents for home.
Discard the bulbs after the blooms fade. Bulbs grown in water won’t bloom again.
Repeat this process every couple of weeks for a continuous supply of paperwhites throughout the winter.
In January, the local home and garden centers start to get in bulbs for the spring season. The selections include dahlias, gladiola, lilies and other beautiful bloomers. These are much easier to obtain color for your garden or house. These types of bulbs do not require the forcing tricks like the paperwhites.
The key is to find fat, plump healthy bulbs and plant them in containers or directly in your garden, 2 to 3 times deeper than the diameter of the bulb. Remember to put the root end down with the stem end up. Sometimes spring bulbs are difficult to determine which end is which. If so, place the bulb on the side and the plant will do the work for you. Use your favorite potting mix and containers with holes in the bottom for good drainage. Leave some space between the bulbs. Keep them moist but don’t drown them.
The same goes for planting outside in the garden. Plant them deep and try to mark them so that you don’t forget which bulbs are where. You don’t want to come along later with further spring preparation in the garden and disturb them.
So whether it is fall, winter or spring- add bulbs for beautiful fragrant additions to your home or garden. It is easy!