COLUMBIA — Would you like a breath of fresh air in the depths of winter? Consider growing paperwhite narcissus. These pretty flowers are easy enough to grow that forcing them to flower is a good project for children. They can be given as gifts or just bring enjoyment during the winter months. Several types are available commercially. Some cultivars, or varieties, have pure white flowers while others are white with light yellow cups.
Paperwhites are named for the pure whiteness of the fragrant petals, and are native to the Mediterranean area. They produce two to 20 small-but-fragrant white flowers on each stalk. They are closely related to the daffodil. Purchase large, top quality bulbs from a reputable garden center, florist or mail-order firm. Pot them anytime after Oct. 1 in either a good houseplant potting mix or in water and pebbles. The blooms will last two to three weeks. Once they've finished blooming, discard the bulbs.
Select firm, shiny, brown-coated bulbs and buy enough to plant new pots every few weeks for a steady supply of indoor flowers. Store the unplanted ones in brown paper bags at room temperature — they do not require cold storage.
If you use gravel, pebbles or marbles for planting, use stones that are small, somewhere between pea-sized and one-half inch in diameter. Use a container with no drainage holes and one that is about three to five inches deep. Fill it about half full with the clean pebbles, gravel or marbles. Place the bulbs on this material so they almost touch one another. Then, hold them in place by heaping pebbles or gravel around them. When planting in this manner, be sure to keep the water from touching the base of the bulbs; if the bottoms of the bulbs get too wet, they may rot. But, be sure to check the water daily to make sure the bulbs do not dry out. Place the bulbs in a cool, dark place for about two weeks before moving them to a warm, sunny location.
If the bulbs are growing in potting mix, make sure the pot has drainage holes and keep the soil moist. The potting mix does not need to be especially rich, and a variety of containers can be used as long as they're three to five inches deep with holes for drainage. Fill the container so that about one-third of the top of each bulb will extend above the pot. Bulbs should be set one to two inches apart. Set them on the surface of the potting mix and fill in around them. For best results, place the container in a cool, dark area for about two weeks and then move it to a warmer, sunnier location. The cooler the room, the longer it will take the bulbs to flower and the longer they will stay in bloom.
If you pot up paperwhites every 10 days or so, you can have a succession of blooms through the winter. Bulbs planted early in the fall take longer to root and flower than ones started several months later.
Paperwhites can't be beat for their ease and wonderful fragrance. They brighten up any room and are a continuous source of beauty during the long winter months. If you've never tried them, consider bringing this simple, delightful flower into your home this winter.
For a list of other bulbs that can be forced indoors during the winter months, go to extension.missouri.edu/xplor/agguides/hort/ and check out the MU Extension Guide sheet #G6550.
Barbara Michael has been a Master Gardener since 1993, and she serves as the Master Gardeners’ liaison to the Community Garden Coalition and serves on its board. She enjoys container gardening and houseplants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.