Posted by Susan Harris

Sure, perennial manager Betsy Winters loves that plant group but over the holidays and through the winter, she's pretty gung-ho about forcing bulbs for indoor color.   Here's what I learned from her recent workshop on potting paperwhites.

When

If you are planting in a combination of soil and rocks (Betsy's favorite) then allow 3-4 weeks and definitely plant now for Christmas blooms.  If  planting in straight rocks or gravel and water, they seem to come up sooner, usually 3 weeks.  Quoting Betsy: "The secret is to give them 2-3 days after planting in a cooler, darker spot so that the bulbs can work on root growth.  Then move to a sunny area and let them go, go, go!"

What Types?

The population is divided on just how much fragrance is desirable in paperwhites but fortunately, there are are choices.  Betsy suggests:

  • Ziva, all-white, is the most popular, with the most blooms and the most smell.  It comes up the fastest and looks the best, by far.
  • Inbal and Galilea are also all-white but have considerably less fragrance, which also means fewer blooms.  They're still nice looking but definitely less prolific on the flowering side.
  • Chinese Sacred Lily is white with a yellow cup.  Similar to Inbal and Galilea, it's less fragrant with fewer blooms, but a pretty display
  • Grand Soleil d’Or has yellow blooms, is less fragrant, has fewer flowers that take longer to come up

What container?
You can just take a shallow dish with no drainage hole and fill it with pebbles.  Or any nice glass, ceramic or even metal container will do – although Betsy advises using a plastic liner in metal containers to avoid rust.  Just remember that if you have a container with no drain hole,  use stone alone.  If you have a drain hole, use dirt, covered with stone, then Super Moss to hide the soil.

Paperwhites can also be grown in a flower pot with soil, which Betsy thinks holds up the bulb better and produces the best result.  Choose a pot with a drain  hole and fill it halfway with good quality potting soil.  (The kind with added nutrients helps, but save your money on those water-absorbing gels because they're not needed in this case).

How to Pot them Up
Use 4-5 bulbs in a 6" dish or 7 in an 8" dish.  Nestle bulbs into the medium pointed end up, and fill the rest of the container with the remaining medium (pebbles, etc).  Then add water, keeping the water level just below the bottom of the bulbs (so the bulb is sitting on top of the water, with its roots dangling into it)  Only the bottom 1/2-inch of the bulb should be wet .

In terra cotta pots, Betsy adds soil to about 1.5” from the top of the pot.  Then snug the bottom of the bulb into the soil, cover with stones up to about ½ to ¾ from tip of bulb, then finish with Super Moss.

Storing, then Care During Blooming
Place the container in a dark place for 4-7 days until roots form and the bulbs feel tight in the pebbles.  When sprouts begin to grow, move the dish to a spot that gets bright light and watch as the foliage and flowers emerge.  Add water periodically (daily or close to it)  - don't let the bulbs dry out.  Cool room temperatures keep the flowers fresh longer - from 10 to 14 days.  Warm and sunny locations produce faster growth, cooler spots slower growth.

To Prevent Flopping
When flowering paperwhites flop (and we all know they can!) it's often because they're leaning toward the light.   If you'll be placing them where the light hits them from the side rather than from above (pretty likely in hour home) you can do two things to prevent flopping:

  • Use a tall container filled halfway up so that the edges keep the first few inches of paperwhite stalks upright.
  • Or construct some kind of cage for the paperwhite stalks - like a peony cage, but it can be made of anything.  I've used stakes to hold up a circle of string myself.
  • Try this “Paperwhite Cocktail” to keep the paperwhite stems shorter.  Water normally with regular tap water until roots start to develop (usually you will notice the bulbs starting to push themselves up when roots are growing) then switch to this mixture:  1 part inexpensive gin to 7 parts of water.  It’s that simple!   Why does this work?  Researchers at Cornell University (Betsy's source for this recipe) suspect that the result may be as simple as “water stress,” meaning that alcohol makes it more difficult for the plant to absorb water.  A slight reduction in water intake is enough to retard stem and leaf growth, but not sufficient to affect flowering.   Read all about it here.

Photo by Melanie McCabe.

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