There is some confusion over the correct identification of the flower that is popularly called paperwhite or paperwhite narcissus. There are often many popular names for one species of plant. The confusion over precise identification of the paperwhite narcissus is not unusual and is a good reason for gardeners to learn the botanical names of plants.
The genus Narcissus is a member of the Amaryllis family of plants that grow from perennial bulbs. They are native to southern Europe, Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, bearing flowers in a cluster at the top of a stalk. Some species grow from perennial bulbs, producing foliage in the fall that lasts through the winter; hardier species leaf out in the early spring.
The Narcissus genus of plants is broken into 11 divisions based on the proportion of their flowers. There are between 50 and 100 species of narcissus including wild hybrids and variants. Most bear flowers in the spring, although some bear flowers in autumn.The genus name, Narcissus, is often used to identify individual species. Daffodil is the name that English speakers have given narcissus plants. Jonquil is a species of Narcissus, but the name jonquil is often used in reference to all plants in the genus. The American Daffodil Society uses daffodil to describe all species of the genus Narcissus.
Paperwhite Botanical Names
The same plant is named differently by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Royal Horticultural Society of England. The USDA lists the paperwhite narcissus as Narcissus papyraceus Ker Gawl. The botanical suffix Ker Gawl means it was originally named by the English Botanist John Bellenden Ker (1764-1842). His original name was John Gawler, but he had it changed to Ker Bellenden in 1804. The Royal Horticultural Society calls the plant Narcissus tazetta ssp papyraceus. The ssp suffix means sub species. The Latin translates as “lily with small, papery cups.”
Narcissus tazetta, also Chinese sacred lily, bunch flowered narcissus and joss flower, is sometimes called the paperwhite.
Narcissus papyraceus Ker Gawl, a perennial, yields a cluster of four to eight flowers that are about 1 inch in diameter atop a stalk 2 to 3 feet high. Their flowers are usually white. They bloom annually for years in warm climates. They like well-drained soil, bright light and mild temperatures. Plants will bloom in one month if planted in October; if they're planted in February they will bloom in two weeks. The longer you store the bulbs, the quicker the plants will develop.
The Greek word “narke,” the root word of narcissus, means something that can produce stupor, madness or death. The paperwhite narcissus contains lycoine, a toxic alkaloid. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty lists the plant as poisonous to cats and dogs, causing diarrhea, vomiting and sometimes convulsions and cardiac arrest. Some English schoolchildren were hospitalized after including narcissus bulbs in a recipe, thinking they were onions.