Holiday Blooms

Forcing Paperwhites For Christmas

by Tina Mast // October - November - December 2021

One indoor plant project that many people enjoy for the holidays is forcing spring bulbs such as paperwhites into bloom for Christmas. While the traditional poinsettia may come to mind when you think of holiday plants, the cool, snowy, delicate beauty of the paperwhite can also add to the magical spirit of the season.

Paperwhites are related to daffodils – both are in the Narcissus genus – but have smaller, pure white flowers in clusters and a strong jasmine-like fragrance. They are easy to force into bloom, especially since they don’t require chilling as other bulbs sometimes do.

You can use a wide variety of containers in which to force them – part of the fun is treasure-hunting at thrift shops for antique or vintage servingware, such as silver-plated casserole dishes or ceramic soup tureens, or any other watertight container that’s at least three to four inches deep, and then use them creatively as plant pots. You may even have cool bowls, jars, or crocks hiding away in a cupboard that would be perfect for growing paperwhites. Several bulbs in an antique bowl or casserole dish make an absolutely charming display and are nice for holiday hostess or teacher gifts. Using a tall vase will help hold up the stems as they grow, but there are other ways to keep plants upright which I’ve outlined for you here.

If you want to have blooms in time for Christmas, start your bulbs around the second or third week of November. The basic idea is to grow the bulbs in water using pebbles, gravel, or glass pebbles into which the roots can grow. You can use aquarium gravel, small pebbles, fireplace glass, marbles, or vase-filler glass for this, and even coordinate it with your container.

Start by adding four or more inches of clean gravel or pebbles to the bottom of the container. Position the bulbs so that the pointy ends face up and fill in and around the bulbs with more gravel/glass until it nearly covers the bulbs, but the “neck” and tip still protrude above. You can jam the bulbs in together tightly and not worry about spacing. Planting tightly actually helps the plants hold each other up as they grow. You may want to wear gloves when you do this, as some people experience skin irritation when handling paperwhites.

Next, add water to the container, filling it until the water level just reaches the base of the bulbs. This will get the roots growing, but helps prevent the bulbs from rotting in water. Your paperwhites can now be placed where you want to them to grow, preferably in a cooler spot around 65 degrees F. The bulbs don’t need a lot of light yet, nor do they need to be kept in a dark spot. Only once roots start to develop will you want to make sure they are in a cool, sunny window so they can grow well.

Keep an eye on the water level, checking daily to see if more water needs to be added so roots don’t dry out. As the flower stalks and leaves grow, they may tend to become top-heavy and flop over. You can stake your paperwhites using small bamboo stakes and twine or raffia to hold them in place, or just secure them with a decorative ribbon. Another trick is to stunt their height with an alcohol solution. After roots begin to grow and growth shoots are about one to two inches tall, pour off the plain water and replace it with an alcohol solution that is 4%-6% alcohol. This can be made with rubbing alcohol or any hard liquor. How the good people at Cornell University figured this out, I would like to know, preferably with my own drink in hand! Refer to the following conversion chart for % alcohol / water solution, and do not use wine or beer for this. And if the bottle is only labeled by proof, divide the proof number in half to determine alcohol percentage.

– 10% alcohol: 1 part water to 1 part alcohol
– 15% alcohol: 2 parts water to 1 part alcohol
– 20% alcohol: 3 parts water to 1 part alcohol
– 25% alcohol: 4 parts water to 1 part alcohol
– 30% alcohol: 5 parts water to 1 part alcohol
– 35% alcohol: 6 parts water to 1 part alcohol
– 40% alcohol: 7 parts water to 1 part alcohol

Continue watering with the alcohol solution and you will see shorter stalks on the plants. The great thing about this is that the flowers will stay the normal size!

This holiday season, enjoy your pretty paperwhites while they bloom, and, when they are finished, just toss the plants on the compost pile. Growing them in water means they won’t have enough energy to return next year in the garden. Just enjoy the fact that they brought beauty and festive blooms into the home for the holidays and think of it as a tradition you can carry on every year at Christmas.

Photo courtesy of Petite Haus.

Tina Mast

Communications director at Homewood Nursery in Raleigh.