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Gardening 101: Paperwhites

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Gardening 101: Paperwhites

December 15, 2014

Paperwhite; Narcissus papyraceus: “The Nicest Narcissist”

In Latin, the paperwhite is called Narcissus papyraceus, named after the Greek myth of Narcissus, a vain fellow who 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:

N.B.: While your paperwhites bloom indoors, get ready to plan your garden outdoors. See:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for paperwhites with our Paperwhites: A Field Guide.

Interested in other bulbs and tubers for your garden or indoor space? Get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various bulbs and tubers with our Bulbs & Tubers: A Field Guide.

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