Paperwhite flowers, alongside amaryllis, are generally associated with the holiday season in our northern climate. Paperwhite bulbs will start to appear in stores and garden centers in mid to late fall—sometimes pre-planted, sometimes ready for you to take home and create your own arrangement. They are a daffodil cousin (Narcissus papyraceus) adapted to the mild climate of the Mediterranean region. Some love their fragrance, while others don’t at all. I suppose it’s the olfactory equivalent of cilantro! If you do decide to plant some of these easy-to-grow bulbs, I’m going to explain how to care for paperwhites until they bloom.
How to care for paperwhites planted in soil
If you are potting up bulbs yourself and want them to bloom around mid December, keep in mind that it takes anywhere from about four to six weeks from planting.
For paperwhites planted in soil in a bulb pan or pot, keep the potting soil consistently moist, but not saturated, which will prevent bulb rot. Choose a pot with a drainage hole so the bulbs are never inadvertently sitting in water.
How to care for paperwhites planted in water
If you’ve planted your paperwhites in a glass container with pebbles and water, make sure that only the base of the bulbs where the roots are touch the water and that the whole bulb itself isn’t taking a bath. This prevents the bulb from rotting. The benefit of growing in a glass container is that you can see where the water level is. Keep an eye on the water levels and replenish so just the roots are always touching the water.
Prevent paperwhites from flopping
One of my favorite pieces of indoor plant advice that I like to dust off around the holidays concerns preventing your elegant pot of paperwhites from unceremoniously flopping over. Rather than allowing paperwhites to grow too tall (causing them to fall over from their own weight), research has shown you can stunt their growth by adding a surprising ingredient to your watering routine: booze. An alcohol solution will keep your paperwhites nice and compact and less likely to droop. You can read more about the concept at Cornell University’s Flowerbulb Research Program.
At the time of planting, place the bulbs atop a layer of stones or glass beads. Leaving the top half of the bulb bare and dry, water normally until the roots start to grow and the shoot is green and about one to two inches long (about one week). Then, replace the water with a four- to six-per cent water/alcohol mix. For example, f the spirit is 40 per cent alcohol, you would use one part booze to seven parts water. Stick to the hard liquor—vodka, gin, rum, etc.—as the sugars in beer and wine are not good for the plants.
Another option is to plant paperwhites in a cylindrical vase. The sides will help hold your paperwhites upright as they grow.
If you’ve planted paperwhites in a deeper flower pot, you could try using bamboo stakes or the plant supports used to stake amaryllis. A simple piece of twine will do in a pinch if you have nothing else at your disposal, though both these last options aren’t as attractive as the first couple.
What to do with paperwhite bulbs after the blooms are done
Paperwhite blooms should last for about two weeks. Plants grow well in indirect light (avoid direct sunlight) in a room that hovers around 65 F (18 C) to 70 F (21 F). If plants are straining towards the light, turning the pot every few days will help keep plants straight. You can deadhead them as they start to wilt, but continue to enjoy the foliage.
However, it’s notoriously hard to save bulbs for next year. Most will send the bulbs to the compost and purchase anew the following year.
More articles about holiday plants
- Kalanchoe care: Tips to help your flowering kalanchoe thrive indoors
- Amaryllis planting tips for holiday blooms
- How to root Christmas cactus cuttings
- Easy projects for mini holiday houseplants
Great information! Thanks!
I’ve been doing this for years using 1 part vodka to 9 parts water as I learned from a Cornell article titled “Pickled Paperwhites”. It definitely makes them about 1/3 shorter. Your proportions may even work better! I just took mine out of the dark, cool closet and started your regimen. Thank you.
Barbara Joy Laffey says
As the water/alcohol mixture evaporates do you continue to refill with the same water/alcohol mix or do you revert back to just water? In other words, do the bulbs need the alcohol hit just once or continually? Thanks!
Tara Nolan says
Hi Barbara, In reading the Cornell study, it seems as though you would probably continue to use the same alcohol/water mix to prevent the paperwhites from falling over.
Would this work for paper whites in ground?
Tara Nolan says
Hi Ashley, I don’t think so. The advice for adding alcohol is for paperwhites grown in water.
I just got mine in the beginning of December. I did not know about alcohol until now. When I read about the Paperwhites. This is the first time I had a plant like this. Thank you for reminding me about the alcohol I’ll tell my husband to get some have a merry Christmas and a happy new year.
Cheryl Shuff says
My husband bought 4 of these Paper Whites at a local grocery store reduced for after the holidays. They are in vases that keep the bulb out of the water and just the roots go in the water. The foliage is really long and the outer leaves are dried up. Should I go ahead and stop watering them and trim them back now store them in a paper bag and start them again in the spring.
Tara Nolan says
Paperwhites can be hard to store for the following season, but it’s worth a try!
Ready for a dumb question? If you can’t replant once they have bloomed…where do these bulbs come from?
A neighbor gave me paperwhites she dug up…what can I do with them? Are they destined for my compost pile?
Tara Nolan says
Hi Sue, No question is dumb! Apparently when bulbs have been forced, they can’t be regrown. But it’s always worth a try!