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Paperwhites by Thanksgiving!

Plant them up soon for fragrant flowering gifts for the holidays

By Kate Bryant November 1, 2010

The holidays are coming and that leads naturally to thought of gifts. One of my favorite, nifty little surprises to bring to parties, along with a bottle of something yummy, is a pot or jar of budded paperwhite narcissus. These sweetly scented narcissus are much-loved but can be pricey. Buying the bulbs now and getting them started means you’ll have affordable, sweet and personal host/hostess gifts for the holidays – and maybe you can pot up a few extras to enjoy for yourself.

Paperwhites are one of the few types of bulbs that don’t require cold treatment. So they’re easy – just plant the bulbs either in little pots of potting soil or in water, with or without pebbles.

Start a few now to bring them into bud and flower around Thanksgiving. They take about 4-6 weeks from planting to flowering. Start more in the coming weeks, through mid- to late November, and you’ll have them coming into flower all through the holidays.

Here’s how to do it:

Pick your receptacle – either a pot with soil or a jar or vase with water and maybe pebbles. You’ll also need to buy the bulbs, which are readily available at most plant nurseries in bulk, which is usually cheaper than buying them packaged. They usually cost between 75 cents and $1.25 apiece.

— Pots (you’ll need a good lookin’ pot, potting soil, and a square of newspaper):

For a single paperwhite bulb, use a pot 3" diameter and 4" or more deep. For three or five bulbs, use a pot that just fits the number of bulbs you’re planting. Paperwhite bulbs can vary in size so hold the bulbs over the top of the pot to make sure they fit. (Try a 4" diameter pot for 3 bulbs and a 5.5" diameter pot for 6-7 bulbs.)

Cut a square of newspaper or coffee filter for the drain hole. Water will drain but the soil will be kept inside the pot. Add potting soil to 1.5 inches below the top and place the bulbs on the surface, just a titch apart. Add just enough to soil to bury the bottom 1/3 of the bulbs. Wet soil thoroughly, let drain and place on drip dish in a cool (55F), dark area until sprouts are about an inch high. At that point, move into a bright, cool location and watch the leaves and flowers slowly unfurl. For gift-giving, dress up the pots with some raffia, ribbon or jute twine around the pot. If you don’t have a terra cotta drip dish, find a metal jar top that fits your pot.


Paperwhites in canning jars with pebbles – image courtesy of

— Glass jars (you’ll need a curved bulb-forcing jar – or any variety of jam or canning jars, juice glasses or cylinder-shaped flower vases. Sometimes pebbles or smooth, attractive stones at the bottom help stabilize bulbs as the roots grow into them).

If using the curved glass bulb jars designed for forcing, you need only added water to the bottom of the vase, just barely below the base of the bulb. The curve in the vase ingeniously holds the roots, which develop below the curve and keep the bulb positioned. Otherwise, any number of other canning jars and vases work well: add a layer of decorative rocks or pebbles (black river rocks or colored glass are easily obtained) and position the bulbs just on top of them. Add water to the level just below the top of the rocks and the paperwhites’ roots will reach for the water. Keep them in a dark, cool (55F-ish) place until the leaves have emerged about an inch high; then move to a cool, bright location and watch the leaves and flowers unfurl! For gifts, tie some attractive string, raffia or ribbon around the jar.

I love to keep a paperwhite pot by my desk and watch it grow a little bit every day. Sweetness!

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