For a simple indoor gardening project, plant pots of these bulbs to keep around the house. They also make beautiful holiday gifts.
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Adding sprays of cheerful flowers and spicy floral fragrance to your home in winter is as easy as planting a few paperwhite bulbs in a pot. Growing bulbs indoors is called forcing, because you get them to bloom out of their natural season by keeping them in cold temperatures until you're ready for them to grow. But paperwhites are so easy that there's no "force" involved; they don't need (or want) to be pre-chilled. Just choose a container, lay the bulbs on top of pretty stones or plant them in soil, add water, and you’ll have elegant blooms in 4-6 weeks. Here's how to grow paperwhites indoors.

Paperwhites & Cranberries
Create a temporary holiday centerpiece by placing paperwhites in a large vase filled with cranberries. The fruit will rot in water, so return the bulbs to pebbles after a day or two.
| Credit: William N. Hopkins

What Are Paperwhites?

If you planted some yellow daffodil bulbs this fall, the closely related paperwhite bulbs will look familiar. The daffodils you grow near your mailbox are a type of narcissus and so are paperwhites. This group of narcissus has tall stems and small, star-shape flowers that are often strongly fragrant.

Paperwhites are native to very warm climates in southern France and southern Spain, so they don’t need any chill time at all before they grow indoors. The bulbs grow so fast that you'll be able to notice their daily progress (kids really enjoy watching these plants develop). And once the flowers open, they'll last about 2 weeks.

How to Plant Paperwhite Bulbs

The goal is a good show of flowers so pack the paperwhite bulbs ($12, Terrain) snugly into the pot you've selected. Each bulb will give you 20-60 small flowers. Paperwhites don't actually need any soil to grow, just a little water. You can grow these bulbs in decorative shallow dishes or trays that are at least 4 inches deep. Fill them with 2-3 inches of stones, pebbles, or glass beads ($6, Etsy). Nestle in the bulbs, pointy sides up, and add water to just touch the bottom of the dried roots but not the bulb itself. The roots will reach down into the water. If the bulbs sit in water, they'll rot. Check the water level each day and top it up so the roots can reach the moisture at all times.

Watering paperwhites is easier to manage when you plant them in potting soil ($5, The Home Depot) in a container with a drainage hole. Start with a few inches of soil, then tuck in the bulbs and add soil up to the top third of the bulbs. Water to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Stash your planted bulbs in a cool spot (55-65˚F) for a couple weeks. They don't need light at this point, but once you see some green growth, move them into a warmer, well-lit location.

How to Care for Paperwhites

Paperwhites that have started to grow need bright light, but the flowers will last longer if the plants stay around 65˚F. Ideal locations in your house could be a cool windowsill with indirect light or a tabletop near a sunny window. Avoid a southern window with the sun streaming in all afternoon. Remember to check the water daily if you've planted them on stones, and every other day if they're planted in soil.

Why You Should Give Paperwhites Alcohol

Paperwhites are notorious for flopping over once they reach their full height of about 16-18 inches tall. That’s why you'll often see them supported with slim stakes and twine, or a metal ring around the foliage. You can also support the stems by growing them on stones at the bottom of a tall glass vase or even a large canning jar.

Another way to keep your paperwhites upright is giving them a shot of hard liquor. Research confirms that paperwhites growing on pebbles have shorter, sturdier stems when watered with some 80 proof liquor (which is 40% alcohol) mixed in their water. Stems will be at least one-third shorter but the flowers will stay the same size.

Here’s how to do it: mix up one part any hard liquor (vodka is cheapest) with 7 parts water for a 5% alcohol solution. Start the bulbs with plain water and after they begin to sprout leaves and stems, replace the water with the alcohol mixture. Theoretically, the alcohol reduces the amount of water the plants receive, stunting their growth.

paperwhite arrangement
Paperwhites may begin to flop over when they reach their full height.
| Credit: Michael Garland

How Long Do Paperwhites Last?

Paperwhites will bloom for about 2 weeks. After that, snip off the faded flowers and either enjoy the green leaves as a houseplant for a few more weeks or drop the bulbs and leaves in the compost pile. These are not bulbs to keep around and try to get them to rebloom; it can take several years of pampering for that to happen.

Best Paperwhite Varieties to Grow

There are a few different varieties that offer varying scents, colors, and sizes. 'Ziva' ($13, The Home Depot) is a popular variety with bright white flowers, strong fragrance, and fast growth. Another classic is Grand Soleil d’Or ($12, Etsy) that offers an orange cup, yellow petals, and bold fragrance.

Newer paperwhite varieties often have softer fragrances if you find the standard ones too strong. Some also have thicker stems so are less likely to flop. For example, 'Nir' ($16, Etsy) is a more user-friendly 'Ziva' with shorter stems, less assertive fragrance, and showier white flowers.

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