“Paperwhite narcissus”, Plant of the Month December 2021

Besides poinsettias, amaryllis, and Christmas cactus, another plant many people grow indoors for the holidays are “paperwhite narcissus”, sometimes just referred to as “paperwhites” (Narcissus papyraceus, with several variety names like ‘Ziva’, ‘Nir’ and ‘Ariel’). 

These bulbs are from warm-winter areas around the Mediterranean and need no winter chill to grow and bloom.  That’s a big part of their allure: you can just plant them in potting mix and water them when dry and they’ll start growing immediately and will flower around 4-6 weeks later.  We've done it annually for decades now and it’s definitely a big part of our holiday traditions.  There’s always a debate among gardeners on the scent: some folks love it and some find it a bit sickly sweet.  We have one of each opinion in our home so we grow them, but in small batches of just one to three bulbs at a time.  That keeps the aroma from being too strong, AND it allows for a longer display when you do a few bulbs every month or so instead of all at once.  

Here in Chico paperwhites are perfectly hardy and can be planted into the garden when their flowers fade—they’ll come back bigger and better each year and will flower each November or December (whether grown indoors or out, give them as much winter sun as possible, although less will work).  Some folks start the bulbs in gravel with water at the bottom, or use a forcing jar (a narrow-neck jar that holds the bulb above water in the jar).  Both of those methods can work too, just remember to keep the water low enough that it is NOT touching the bulb or the bulbs will rot.  We find it much easier and more reliable to start them in pots of potting mix.  We weigh the bulbs down with gravel or stones so their vigorous roots don’t push the bulbs up and out of the soil.  Like all daffodils and narcissus, the plants and flowers are toxic if eaten, so make a note.  I hope you’ll give “paperwhites” a try and let me know what you think.  Happy gardening! Grant 

Contributed by member and 2020-2022 Club President Grant Meyer