Paperwhites

Narcissus papyraceus

Originally, I’d gotten these bulbs on a whim. They were adorable, presented well in a wooden box, and only $1 each. I promptly bought three, gave one away, and then forgot about the other two for a week or so. By the time I realized that I should start putting these in the ground, the city suddenly underwent incredibly high winds and deep chills (at least for LA). The bulbs did nothing in the soil outside. Then, a couple weeks later, the two bulbs suddenly woke up.

Foliage shot up fairly quickly, fairly similar to daffodils. Right from the start, a thick flower head grew up from the center. No bulbs or petals were present, but they announced their future location right away. Before a month had passed, the plants had grown to their full height and the flowers began to open. Even before winter is over, I can go outside to smell these lovely little flowers.

Next step, I need to try to get some seeds to turn into full bulbs!


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Observing a Plant Mindful Foliage



Characteristics

Perennial bulbous herb – a non-woody plant that grows from a bulb, and can potentially come back year after year (if a mistake or bad weather doesn’t turn it into an annual). While the fragrant flowers are the main goal of this plant, it has some lovely foliage that spreads outward more than many daffodil-relatives. The leaves are fairly tall and narrow, looking like a gentle tuft of over-large grass.

This relative of the daffodil is named after papyrus, meaning paper-like. Paperwhites belong to a class of daffodils known as Tazetta Narcissus (“small cup” narcissus). Tazettas have flower stalks with 3 to 20 flowers per stem, fragrant flowers, and can be forced in water without needing a few months of refrigeration.

Origin

Mediterranean and adjacent areas of central Asia

Care

Water

When you’re storing the bulbs and not intending to grow them, don’t get them wet. They’ll either try to start growing, or they’ll start to rot. Unless you want either of those to happen, store them how you would potatoes – dim, dry, and cool.

Paperwhites are resistant to drought, but can rot in too-wet soil. If you’ve placed the bulbs fairly shallowly (so that just the tips are showing over the dirt), water when the dirt is dry halfway down the depth of the bulbs. For the pot my two paperwhites are in, that comes out to every 6 days or so during the cool, dry winter.

If you’re growing your paperwhite bulbs in water, life can get a little easier. However you’ve suspended your bulbs (more on this later…), make sure to fill water up to just below the bulbs. If the bulbs sit in water, they’ll rot. The roots will seek out water at the very beginning, and will naturally grow in between the growing strata and into the water. Bulbs grown in (technically “over”) water typically will die after their foliage fades.

Light

If you’re storing the bulbs before planting them in soil, keep them well out of direct sunlight. I stored them in a brown paper bag in a dim corner of the room, and they did perfectly fine for a couple weeks.

Once the bulbs start to grow their leaves, they enjoy sunlight. Full sun (direct sun for more than 6 hours a day) can cause them to get leggy. I find between 4 and 6 hours to do perfectly in encouraging a happy flower stalk at a nice height. When grown in too little light, they may become weak or stunted. A bright windowsill will do quite fine.

If you’re growing these indoors, please make sure to turn them every few days so they grow more evenly. They will grow and blossom towards the sun if they are not rotated.

Temperature

They’ll tolerate some relatively cool temperatures as the bulbs start to wake up. When you first get the bulbs going in water or soil, they’re fine around 50-60F (10-15C). As they’re growing, they’ll continue to be fine with low temperatures – just make sure not to let them get down to freezing temperatures. Zones 8-11 work well.

Down in Southern California, you can plant these in the fall or winter and expect flowers a handful of weeks later. I planted mine outside in dirt towards the latter half of winter – and had my first blooms before the first days of spring.

Fertilizer

Regular potting soil is perfect with no additives. If you’re growing in water, please don’t use distilled (though a 5% alcohol solution can encourage them to grow to a lesser height, making them less likely to topple over)


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The Dirt

Soil

Paperwhite bulbs can be grown in dirt or water, so you’ve got some options.

If you’re growing them in water, then you don’t need any particularly fancy kind of water. You can add a dash of alcohol to the water (5% concentration) to encourage shorter and more stable stems.

To grow paperwhites in dirt, just use normal potting soil.

Root & Pot

This plant is a pretty fun one for a temporary flower display – it can grow in soil… or in water. Literally a cup of water with some rocks. You can pack them pretty tightly together; shoulder-to-shoulder in water, or with an inch or two of spacing when in dirt. Really – you can pack them pretty close together! Make sure the pointy side is up. The flower bearing stalks grow to about 12 to 18 inches in height over the course of 4-6 weeks.

If you’re growing the plants in water, the setup is simple – Get a cup wide enough for the bulbs to sit without standing in a large pile. Layer stones in the bottom of the cup – little pebbles and such – to a depth of a couple inches. Place the bulbs on top of the rocks with the roots facing down, and stick tiny other rocks between the bulbs to keep them standing upright. Add water until it’s just below the the bulbs. If the bulbs sit in water, they’ll rot. Don’t worry, the roots will reach down to the water.

If the plants are growing in a cup of water, they may topple over as they get taller. It’s best to find a way to prop them up as they get ready to flower, so you don’t end up with a bunch of fallen flowers.

I prefer to grow my paperwhites in soil, outdoors. This way the flowers are helpful to whichever birds or insects might want to enjoy them too. There’s two ways to go about putting them in the dirt, both of which yield the same end result.
The lazier way (which doesn’t help the soil breathe as well) is to scoop just enough dirt out to place the bulbs in the earth. If they’ve already got green tips poking out, I like to have those just peek above the level of the dirt. Otherwise, it’s alright to place them a little submerged.
The more effective way (especially for potted plants) is to first fill your container to about 2/3 to 3/4 full of dirt. Mix water in with the dirt until it’s appropriately soaked. This should probably be done outdoors, since it’ll be dripping everywhere and making a huge mess. Once that bundle of dirt is ready, place the bulbs on top of it shoulder-to-shoulder. You can really pack them in close together. Add more dirt on top and in between the bulbs, until everything but the tips are covered. Then water some more to compress down the dirt on top.

Later Life

Propagation

The flowers will last a week or two, after which point they may go to seed. The seed pods will take a few months to mature, at which point you can collect the seeds. From there, the seeds need to be carefully kept in moist conditions (a folded, damp paper towel that is watched for mold) for another two months. At this point, they should hopefully be bulblets that are ready for transplanting into dirt. Keep these new seedlings in moist soil (but not overly wet).

If the bulbs are being kept in soil long-term, you can potentially divide the bulbs after the foliage has turned yellow and died back.

Flower & Fruit

The flowers tend to bloom for a couple of weeks. You can plant the bulbs in bunches a couple weeks apart to stagger the blooms in waves. They may not ever bloom again if they first bloom indoors. At that point, it’s best to compost the bulbs.

The flowers are small – roughly as large across as a quarter. They’re generally six-petaled and a gentle white color. They are surprisingly fragrant, with a sort of musty sweetness. Some people love it, some the opposite.

Edibility

The bulbs are poisonous if eaten in large quantities.

Problems

Pests & Diseases

None of note. The alkaloid content is not friendly to pests.

Trouble Signs

They’re quite hardy and have a fairly quick lifecycle, so they don’t have much opportunity to show problems.

Other Notes

Bulb rot may occur in too-wet soils.



Thanks for stopping by! I hope you had a pleasant time checking out the plants. If you’re in the mood for more nature, please stay in touch!

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Check out the guide to find out the easy way to raise paperwhites!

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