Last updated on December 2nd, 2011
WHO WANTS TO SPEND THE WINTER MONTHS without the colorful companionship of Narcissus grandiflora? Not me! These “paperwhites” make a cheerful display in the various window gardens here, and lend sweet fragrance among scentless cyclamens, ferns, and African violets. I force the bulbs in pebbles and water, and keep the flowering stems from falling over by plying the bulbs with gin (yes, gin):
Containers. You can grow narcissus in all kinds of decorative bowls and vases, and even kitchen items too, like coffee mugs (one bulb per mug) and Bundt pans. The important thing is that containers be deep enough, preferably 4-5 inches, to permit enough pebbles to be spread under and around the bulbs, and thus give support to the big root masses which develop.
Planting. Fill a container 2/3 full with polished aquarium pebbles (my first choice) or some other clean aggregate, and then arrange the bulbs on top. Odd groupings of three, five, or seven bulbs make the most attractive displays.
40-Proof Paperwhites. To keep these narcissi from growing too tall (unstaked, they collapse in a miserable heap just as their flowers open), give them a shot of gin: after planting, set the bulbs in a light or sunny window for exactly one week. Then pour the water off, and replace it with five parts water to one part gin (or vodka — any liquor that is 40-proof will do the trick).
This booze-and-water-business really works. The plants grow to half their normal size, but with flowers just as large and fragrant as usual. As evaporation occurs, I always replenish the bulbs with the same gin-mixture, to a level that just touches the base of the bulbs.
Varieties to try. Although most garden centers sell the standard ‘Ziva’ paperwhite, there are other varieties worth trying. I love ‘Ariel,’ above, and also ‘Nir’ for their musky-sweet scent and high bud count (both produce more blooms that Ziva).
‘Inball’ and ‘Winter Sun’ are not musky, just sweet. ‘Winter Sun,’ above, in my parlor window with a background of November snow, features a creamy yellow cup framed with sparkling white petals. ‘Inball’ is completely white.
One very pleasant aspect of paperwhites is that unlike Dutch bulbs, they do not require chilling. Nor do they demand an inordinate amount of sunlight. Mine bloom unfailingly in east and west windows, where they receive just a few hours of weak winter sun.
I think you will find, as I have, that these tropical travelers are the easiest of all bulbs to force for winter color and perfume. Their beauty is both breathtaking and guaranteed, providing you start with quality stock. I order my bulbs from a specialty-dealer.
The nearer bulbs are planted to their natural bloom time, the sooner the flowers emerge. For Thanksgiving bloom, be sure to plant the bulbs in mid-October. For Christmas fragrance, make your planting the third week of November. Plantings made after New Year’s Day usually bloom in only 3 weeks’ time.
Think you’ll plant paperwhites this fall? Well, I certainly hope so!
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