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Easy-to-grow, fragrant paperwhites add cheer to holiday table

Jessica Walliser
| Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, 12:03 a.m.
Blooming paperwhites are fragrant and lovely.
Jessica Walliser
Blooming paperwhites are fragrant and lovely.

Paperwhites are easy-to-grow, fragrant bulbs that can dress up your holiday decor like nothing else.

Since the heady perfume of just a few blooming bulbs can scent the entire house, potting up a container with three to five bulbs is all you need to add a bit of cheer to your holiday table.

Paperwhites are a type of non-hardy daffodil (Narcissus tazetta). Native to the Mediterranean region, these bulbs produce clusters of small, pure white blooms just a few weeks after planting.

Unlike other daffodils, paperwhite bulbs do not need to be subjected to a period of cold in order to produce blooms. They simply need water to break dormancy and flower. While gardeners in warm, tropical climates can grow paperwhites in their gardens, we grow them indoors here in the north.

Paperwhites can be purchased from local nurseries and flower shops, as well as from online bulb companies and catalogs. Once you have the bulbs in hand, there are a few different ways you can get them growing.

Bowl or vase

Among the simplest ways is to fill a bowl or vase with a few inches of decorative gravel, glass pebbles or aquarium gravel. Choose a container without a drainage hole so it holds water. Then, twist the base of the bulbs down into the gravel and fill the container with water until it reaches the base of the bulbs.

Only the bottom half of the bulb should be down in the gravel; the rest of the bulb should stand over the gravel to keep it from developing rot. Top off the water every few days, making sure the very bottom of the bulb is always in contact with the water.

Another way to grow paperwhites is in soil. For this method, choose a wide, shallow flower pot with a drainage hole. Fill the pot with fresh potting soil and tuck the bulbs into the soil so a quarter of the bulb remains above the soil surface. Water the bulbs in.

Paperwhite bulbs should be kept slightly moist at all times, but make sure no water sits in a drainage saucer beneath the pot or the bulbs could rot.

Whether you grow your paperwhites in gravel or soil, you’ll need to support the flowering stems soon after they emerge from the bulb.

Because the flowers are top-heavy and the stems aren’t always strong enough to hold them up, insert some twigs, bamboo stakes or another plant support into the soil or gravel and tie the flowering stems to the support with a bit of raffia or ribbon.

Vodka or gin

Interestingly, research at the Flowerbulb Research Program at Cornell University has shown that adding a little vodka or gin to the irrigation water keeps paperwhite stems from flopping over. When the emerging shoots are 1 or 2 inches tall, replace your irrigation water with a mix of alcohol and water. Use about one part alcohol to 6 or 7 parts water.

Don’t use beer or wine, though, as the sugars contained in them can cause mold growth and other issues. Continue watering with the water/alcohol mix until the flowers come into bloom. You should note a shorter stem length and a thicker stalk that’s better able to support the blooms.

Paperwhite bulbs flower within four weeks of planting, so potting some up right now means you’ll have them in bloom for the holidays. Once the bulbs have flowered, you can discard them.

In our climate, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to get the bulbs to re-bloom in future years. Thankfully, the bulbs are not very expensive.

If you plant a few more paperwhite bulbs every few weeks, you’ll have a constant supply of fragrant blooms all winter long, perfect for beating those wintertime blues.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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