Cultivating Life: Paperwhite narcissus

Planting bulbs is an easy way to enliven winter interiors well into the new year

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One of the best ways to brighten your home during winter, and especially to add to the festive atmosphere of New Year’s, is with the pure white flowers and sweet scent of Narcissus papyraceus.

Paperwhites, as they are commonly called, are flowering bulbs native to Southern Europe and Asia. These small bulbs, with their brown papery outer layers, are related to the common daffodil but are much easier to coax into bloom indoors. They do not require a long period of cooling prior to flowering, the way their cousins do.

Paperwhites are among the easiest of bulbs to grow — and are perfect for beginners — provided a few simple steps are followed.

For best results, choose bulbs that are firm and have an intact growing tip at one end. Some bulbs have growing tips that are curved, while others will be straight; either is fine as long as the bulb has at least a bit of a growing tip visible. Be sure to examine the round flat end of the bulb to ensure it is not damaged; this is the end of the bulb that produces the roots.

Once you have chosen quality bulbs, choose the container to plant them in. Paperwhite bulbs can be grown in pots with potting soil or in containers filled with pebbles, gravel, tumbled glass or marbles. If using potting soil, choose a pot with a drainage hole. Place enough soil to fill the pot two-thirds full. Next place bulbs flat side down on the surface of the soil and slightly push each bulb down, making sure the round flat end rests just under the surface of the soil.

Plant bulbs “shoulder to shoulder” so that they fill the pot. Do not worry about overcrowding; this is definitely a case of the more the merrier. Now add more soil until only the top [ ] of the bulb is showing above the soil. Then fill the rest of the pot with pea gravel. The pea gravel will keep the soil from washing out when you water the bulbs, and it looks more attractive than bare soil. Water well and keep evenly moist.

If you wish to plant the bulbs in gravel or crushed stone, select a container that does not have drainage holes. Fill the container almost to the top with pebbles, marbles, gravel or tumbled glass. Next, place the bulbs flat side down in the gravel and slightly press the bulbs down so that the lower third of each bulb is below the surface of the gravel. Now, add enough water to the container so that the base of the bulb is moist. The majority of the bulb needs to be above the water line so the bulb does not rot. The roots will grow down through the gravel into the water. Make sure to keep water in the container at all times.

Cultural requirements are the same for both potting methods. After your bulbs are planted, place them in a cool but sunny spot. The cooler the temperature, the more compact the growth. Common complaints when growing paperwhites are that the stems fall over just as the bulbs begin blooming. Cooler growing temperatures keep the stems sturdy. I grow mine at about 55 F. Once they begin flowering, I move them to a warmer room in the house.

Don’t worry about fertilizing; paperwhites have all the food they need in the bulb. Depending on the temperature of your home, they should remain in bloom for up to two weeks. Paperwhite bulbs will not rebloom again another year, so think of them as cut flowers. Once they stop blooming, you can add them to your compost pile.

I plant a few pots of these wonderful bulbs every week so my family can continue enjoying them well into the new year!

Sean Conway’s book is “Sean Conway’s Cultivating Life.”