For a breath of spring in the depths of winter, it’s hard to beat a pot of flowering Paperwhite Narcissus. Paperwhites are easy to grow, so forcing them to flower is a good project, even for the newest gardener; plus, they make a beautiful decoration for the home or could be presented as a gift.
Purchase the bulbs any time after Oct. 1 from a reputable nursery or garden center. With paperwhites, it is a good idea not to set them out all at once. Space out the time between when you set them out to every 10 days; and then, your blooms will not come all at once. You will have blooms from December through spring. Once you do set out the paperwhite bulbs, you should begin to see flowers within four to six weeks.
Although the term “forcing” is used when speaking of paperwhites, in this area of the Southeast it might be better expressed as “fooling.” What you really do is fool the bulb into thinking winter is over, and it is time to bloom. Paperwhites are the easiest indoor bulbs to force or fool, and they are usually available at local nurseries and home improvement centers or through catalogs.
Paperwhites are best grown in a shallow pot or bowl with no drainage holes in the bottom and best of all, no soil is required, only water. Start by finding a container and filling the bottom with gravel, small stones or even fun things like colored beads or marbles (there are tons of creative options); 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 for support and to hold the bulbs in place, but do not bury the bulbs. At least half of the bulb should remain exposed.
Add water up to the base of the bulbs and maintain it at this level, making sure that the bulbs do not stay in the water once it begins to send out roots. If the bulbs are in the water, they will rot. Place the container in a cool, dark place for two weeks before placing it in a warm, sunny location. Add water as evaporation and root uptake depletes 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 degrees will bloom in about six weeks. For later blooms, you can delay setting them out or the pot can be maintained at 50 degrees; and then, moved to the higher temperature later.
For late spring blooms, the bulbs can be stored dry at 50 degrees. 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.
Paperwhite narcissus are tender bulbs that will not overwinter outdoors easily, and they may be forced only once. After the foliage begins to turn yellow, discard the bulbs and the potting medium (gravel or marbles may be washed and stored and used again next year). Wash containers immediately and thoroughly to remove salts and lime deposits; and hopefully by then, warmer temperatures and outdoor spring flowers will have arrived.