Paperwhite narcissus bulbs appear in U.S. nurseries as early as October, and can provide a fragrant reminder of spring as early as Thanksgiving. This delicate member of the jonquil/daffodil family is ideal for one-time indoor growth, commonly called "forcing." Bulbs planted in an every-two-week sequence can provide floral beauty inside through the long, harsh winter weather.
Narcissus tazetta, commonly called paperwhites, are native to Mediterranean countries. They resemble other members of the daffodil family in shape and color, but they cannot tolerate temperatures below 35°F. Scholars say descriptions of narcissus can be found in the writings of Homer and note that the Greeks were generally suspicious of their strong fragrance. Today, Israel is one of several major sources of paperwhite bulbs imported to the U.S.; narcissus are cultivated on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Cultivation has made both white and yellow varieties available for indoor forcing and outdoor warm-climate growth.
Growing paperwhites outdoors
In cool-winter areas, where temperatures remain above freezing, paperwhite narcissus can be planted outdoors like other spring bulbs. Planted in the fall and protected from the cold, paperwhites will be among the first harbingers of spring and can provide several years of fragrant blooms.
Growing Paperwhites Indoors
Indoor cultivation of paperwhites requires only simple equipment: a low-sided bowl or planter, marble chips, small stones or gravel, water and bulbs. The process of indoor cultivation is commonly called "forcing." Bulbs are provided with water and artificial warmth, triggering early growth. Usually, forced bulbs grow for a single season.
Place stones in an even layer in your bowl or planter, wedge bulbs into the stones, and add water. A bowl that's eight inches in diameter provides adequate room for four to six bulbs--because they do not depend on soil for nutrition, crowding will not affect growth. Keep the water level below the top of the stones, making certain that developing bulb-roots can still reach water at all times. As initial green shoots develop, move your bowl to a sunny window if possible. Light and warmth stimulate growth.
Scheduling Indoor Plantings
Because you are providing an artificial warm growth season for paperwhites, growth will be rapid. Whether you hope to decorate your holiday table or give a blooming gift, allow approximately four weeks for paperwhites to go from bulb to bloom. Depending upon indoor warmth and light, this process can take as long as six weeks--and sometimes appears to happen overnight! Ideally, your intended gift will move from bulb to buds in four weeks, making your recipient part of the final growth process. Plants can grow 12 to 18 inches tall. Provide green stakes and string or a length of colorful holiday ribbon to tie foliage together and prevent tipping. Planting pots of paperwhites at two-week intervals can provide you with an entire winter's worth of blooms. Keep the bulbs dry until you are ready to plant them.
Although forced bulbs usually expend all their energy by blooming once, optimistic gardeners have had occasional success with moving them outdoors into the garden in moderate climates. As flowers begin to wither, move your bowl outdoors to a sheltered spot for several days. Plant bulbs six to eight inches deep in the ground, as you would other members of the daffodil family, and hope for results. You may be happily surprised in the spring.