ISSUE 50  |  Feeling Festivus

Field Guide: Paperwhites

December 15, 2014 7:30 PM

BY Amanda Gutterman

Paperwhite; Narcissus papyraceus: “The Nicest Narcissist”

In Latin, the paperwhite is called Narcissus papyraceus, named after the Greek myth of Narcissus, a vain fellowwho fell in love with his own reflection and wasted away staring into a pool’s mirror surface until the gods took pity and turned him into a flower. We think his fate could’ve been worse. The paperwhite is a petite, cream-colored narcissus native to Mediterranean riverbanks. Its stamen is bright yellow tipped with orange, at the center of a cup of petals shaped something like the daffodil. If we looked this precious, we might fall in love with ourselves, too.

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Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle.

Cheat Sheet

  • Paperwhites grown indoors tend to produce large flowers that are too heavy for the stems. For support, loosely tie the paperwhite stems together with some natural-looking twine, or invest in some metal or bamboo stakes.
  • Fragrant; easily forced to grow indoors.
  • Winter hardy outdoors, as well.

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Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle.

Keep It Alive

  • Partial or filtered sun.
  • Water thoroughly during growth periods.
  • If planting outdoors in autumn, place bulbs a few inches apart; if forcing bulbs indoors, try a five-inch pot.

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Above: Paperwhites growing outdoors. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

Paperwhites are not your garden-variety narcissists. In fact, they are a little bit shy (maybe Narcissus was also, and just gets a bad rap?).

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Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle.

Paperwhites are slow to germinate, but it can be a pleasing process. Place bulbs on top of water jugs with their roots submerged and allow them to grow in a sunny spot. Soon they’ll be ready for fall planting. Or just keep them inside. Try a glass pot or vase so the roots are exposed. Paperwhites can thrive without soil, so consider potting them in marbles, pretty stones, shells, or water for a visually interesting effect.

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Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle.

Like some shyer folks, it takes a little, er, effort to convince the paperwhite to come out of its shell. Paperwhite growers have found that the flowers have a taste for the drink. While alcohol stunts the growth of most plants, in paperwhites, it only stunts the stems, and makes the blossoms bloom larger. Mix a little gin, vodka, whiskey, rum or tequila–the paperwhite is an equal-opportunity drinker–into its water and watch its petals spread. That is our kind of self-love.

Are you trying forcing paperwhite bulbs indoors? For more inspiration, see: