Growing Fragrant Paperwhite Narcissus at Home

It may be March, but here in the Northeastern U.S., spring is still elusive. Bulbs have started to poke through the firm soil, but they are still over a month from blooming. Even once the official start to spring rolls around, everything where I live will still look very much as it did in the middle of winter—barren, grey, and spare. I could sit and brood, longing for springtime, but instead I’ve decided to start spring early—indoors—by jamming the windowsills with the fast and incredibly fragrant paperwhite narcissus.

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Paperwhites are among the easiest and most rewarding of flowering bulbs to grow indoors. They often flower within two to three weeks of starting the bulbs, and for almost no effort, they reward you with clusters of incredibly fragrant, snow white blossoms that easily fill a room with their rich, indolic fragrance. Even if you have never smelled narcissus before, the scent of paperwhites immediately evokes springtime, with a heady white floral perfume that is accented by chilly earthiness and fresh, green touches.

It takes just a few minutes to start growing paperwhite bulbs, and once started, they require no special care. Some bright light and plenty of water are about all they demand. Paperwhites are more commonly grown around Christmastime, but I like growing them at this time of the year because they are sold at highly discounted prices. This is due to the fact that garden shops try to sell them before introducing new spring stock. I was able to find mine for about fifteen cents per bulb, from the same shop that had sold them for about a dollar each this past December. When shopping for your bulbs, look for bulbs that appear plump and firm. Bulbs that are soft and shriveled may be rotting or damaged, and will not produce vigorous growth. If there are green shoots growing out of the top of the bulb, they should be tight and only an inch or two long at most.

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Once you have your paperwhite bulbs, all you will need to begin growing is a bowl or vase (without drainage holes) to grow the bulbs in and ”soil”, which in the case of paperwhites is not soil at all. Instead, paperwhites are best grown atop coarse pebbles or small stones. I picked up some smooth, polished pebbles from a craft store, which work very well, but you could also use marbles, glass beads, or anything similar. The container you choose to grow your bulbs in is entirely up to you, and is limited only by your imagination. Glass vase? Teacup? Dessert bowl? These are just a few ideas.

I like to use cylindrical glass vases for my paperwhites, because they perform two practical functions, one being that they allow light to pass through to the growing bulb, and the other that the sides of the vase offer support to the leaves of the plant, since paperwhites have a tendency to grow very tall and flop over. Another consideration is that blooming paperwhites look very impressive when grouped together, so growing in a bowl, which allows enough space for many bulbs, is also a good option. No matter how you choose to grow your paperwhites though, it is a great pleasure. Follow the step-by-step tutorial below to learn how to grow these easy, fragrant, and rewarding bulbs.

A Step-by-Step Tutorial

First, place your choice of pebbles into the container, at least a few inches deep. Depending upon the container you are using, you may also fill the container up to within about an inch of the rim, so that the bulb will sit somewhat below the edge.

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Next, place your bulb, pointed end up, atop the pebbles. Then add some more pebbles, so that the bulb is anchored in place, but the tip is still uncovered.. If you are using a shallow dish or bowl to group your paperwhites, don’t be afraid to pack the bulbs in as closely as you can, filling the dish. This will create a display that looks full and attractive.

Next, simply pour water into your container, so that the base of the bulb is submerged in water, but the rest is dry. If the bulb is covered in too much water, it is likely to rot.

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Next, place your paperwhite in a nice, bright location. An east or south-facing window works best. Make sure to maintain the water level as the bulb grows. This is especially crucial during the first week or so of growing, before the bulb grows roots. Once you see roots starting to grow out of the base of the bulb (which may take anywhere from a few days to over a week), the leaves will start to grow as well, and within two to three weeks, the paperwhite will bloom.

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Once in bloom, you may move your paperwhite to a location out of direct sunlight, which will help the flowers to last longer. In most cases, the flowers on your paperwhite should last up to a week or slightly longer. While blooming, be sure to check the water level daily—paperwhites drink up a lot of water, and keeping your plant properly hydrated is essential for long-lasting flowers. After the bulb is finished blooming, it can be composted or otherwise discarded.

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Note: Once you start growing paperwhites, you may notice their annoying habit of flopping over, as they can grow quite tall. This article discusses an ingenious technique that involves watering with an alcohol solution to prevent this from happening. I’ve tried it, and now use it on all my paperwhites—it really works!

Photography by Andy Gerber (top image by Bois de Jasmin).

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39 Comments

  • Martyn: What a great article; inspiring too. Thank you. And a good tip about the alcohol. I shall try this at the weekend. March 14, 2013 at 7:25am Reply

    • Andy: You’re welcome, Martyn. The alcohol trick is really neat, and I think it produces plants that actually look a lot nicer and somehow more natural, despite the fact that the alcohol artificially stunts the plant’s growth.The gangly, tall growth that narcissi often have is fine, but a bit unsightly. March 14, 2013 at 4:11pm Reply

  • FearsMice: Thanks for the beautiful photos. I adore paperwhites, and that tip about the alcohol solution is pure brilliance! March 14, 2013 at 7:30am Reply

    • Andy: Yes, definitely try the alcohol trick! It’s works like a charm! March 14, 2013 at 4:13pm Reply

  • Kathryn: Another way to to add support is by poking some decorative branches into the pebbles. This time of year I use pussy willows, but during the winter holidays, the red berries and gray branches of winterberry are really pretty. Using an alcohol solution to contain growth is very effective, but it does add another layer of scent to an already heady mix. March 14, 2013 at 8:10am Reply

    • Andy: That’s a great tip, Kathryn! Thanks! I think I might try that even on paperwhites that don’t need the support, because it sounds so pretty. I especially love the thought of combining winterberry and paperwhites.

      And you’re right, the alcohol solution can smell a bit off, but I only notice it when I’m getting really close up to smell the flowers. Otherwise, I like the technique. March 14, 2013 at 4:19pm Reply

  • Austenfan: I always have bulbflowers in my house during late winter/early spring but have never had paperwhites. (Daffodils are my favourite flowers.)
    Living in Holland it is so easy to find all sorts of bulbflower arrangements in pots, baskets and what have you. People just love getting some splashes of colour inside their houses when everything outside is so cold and grey.

    My poor crocuses that started blooming last week, when it was lovely and springlike have all been hit by the frost. Everything is late here too, due to the cold weather. March 14, 2013 at 8:20am Reply

    • Victoria: I meant to ask you, when are the tulips going to be in full bloom? Is it usually around mid-April? March 14, 2013 at 1:41pm Reply

      • Austenfan: From April to June. Tulips flower quite a bit later than crocuses and even daffodils. It might all happen a little later this year because of the cold.
        The area between roughly Amsterdam and Leiden, just behind the dunes, has the most bulb growers. The colours are quite spectacular.
        I have never visited the Keukenhof myself as I find it quite expensive but it might be worth it. March 14, 2013 at 3:40pm Reply

        • Victoria: Must be quite a sight! A photographer friend visited one of the farms, where they grow bulbs. Just as he visited, they were snipping the flowers off to encourage the bulbs to grow, and he has the most fantastic photos of towering piles of bright flowers in the fields. March 14, 2013 at 4:02pm Reply

    • Andy: That must be very nice, to have access to so many kinds and varieties of bulbs where you live. Definitely try some paperwhites if you see them around—along with hyacinths, they are one of the most fragrant spring bulbs around—a real treat!

      Sorry to hear about your crocuses though. That can be truly disappointing, when weather interferes in the garden. March 14, 2013 at 4:27pm Reply

  • Connie: Haha, I love paperwhites, the smell great and are so uplifting in winter. The idea of a tutorial socks me though, in my experience, they’re vigorous enough that they’ll grow and bloom no matter what you do to them 🙂 March 14, 2013 at 8:43am Reply

    • Connie: Wow, that was a lot of spelling mistakes.
      *they
      *shocks, not socks
      oh well… March 14, 2013 at 8:44am Reply

    • Andy: So true, Connie! Paperwhites can take just about everything! 🙂 March 14, 2013 at 4:29pm Reply

  • Julie: Thank you for posting this! My daughter grew a paperwhite at her montessori school and brought it home. Once it bloomed and stopped I didn’t know what to do with it so I put it in a pot of soil outside. After reading this, I immediately ran outside and put it in a glass container like you showed (she brought it home in a plastic cup). I also did not realize it is a variety of narcisuss, which is my birth flower. It did fill the whole kitchen with the most unique smell. Thanks again! March 14, 2013 at 9:08am Reply

    • Andy: I’m not an expert on this aspect of paperwhites, but from what I’ve read, paperwhites unfortunately don’t re-bloom very well. It seems that they sometimes can be coaxed into flowering again with some special care, but usually even if they do, the flowers are very weak the second year. Since they are so inexpensive and available, you might be better off discarding the old bulb (a pity, I know) and buying new ones. Hope this helps! March 14, 2013 at 4:34pm Reply

  • Beth: Thank you for reminding me about these lovely easy bloomers! I’m going to run out to our local garden shop and pick some up! With fingers crossed maybe I’ll have some blooms for easter! March 14, 2013 at 10:38am Reply

    • Andy: I think that if you plant a bunch of them and place them in the brightest, warmest window you can, you definitely might have at least some blooming by then. If you use the alcohol trick I mentioned in the link at the end of the article, it also may help to speed up the time between when you plant and when the flowers bloom. March 14, 2013 at 4:38pm Reply

  • Jessica: Thank you for this beautiful post! I didn’t realize they could be so easy to grow. March 14, 2013 at 2:22pm Reply

    • Andy: Yes they are very easy! And beautiful (smelling and looking) too! March 14, 2013 at 4:40pm Reply

  • ralu: What a fabulous idea! I should do that! 🙂 I was wondering if you were thinking of reviewing the L’wren Scott perfume sold at Barneys. I smelled it once and liked it but will have to try it again before formulating an opinion. March 14, 2013 at 2:47pm Reply

    • Andy: Certainly try growing the paperwhites! It is a lot of fun and is also very rewarding. In terms of fragrance reviews, you might want to ask Victoria about that though. 🙂 March 14, 2013 at 4:44pm Reply

  • Daisy: Hi Andy! Thank you so much for the step=by-step on how to grow paperwhites at home! I never knew that it was so easy and that they don’t need soil. How interesting! The next time that I see bulbs, I am going to try this 🙂

    Inspired by your post, my sotd is SJP’s Lovely! March 14, 2013 at 3:00pm Reply

    • Andy: Yes, make sure to try this—I think you’ll absolutely fall in love with growing paperwhites when the flowers open and fill the room with fragrance.

      So charmed to see that your fragrance choice today was inspired by this post! 🙂 March 14, 2013 at 4:48pm Reply

  • Andrea: Beautiful and inspiring! I have a question: I am growing Amaryllis and have 4 leaves which are quite long, but no flower! I have it under a bright light but not a window. The tips are beginning to brown. What do I need to do to 1) avoid browning tips and 2) get it to flower?! Thanks, Andy March 14, 2013 at 3:01pm Reply

    • Andy: I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I appreciate your kind words. 🙂

      I have some experience growing amaryllis, but I have never experienced the leaf tips browning like that. All I can think of as a cause for that is that, if the tips of the leaves are too close to the light, they might be getting burnt from the high intensity (yes, plants get “sunburn” too!). Amaryllises do need very bright light, but maybe the light is too much. If possible, I would move the amaryllis to a bright, south-facing window, as amaryllises do best under sunlight.

      As far as the lack of flowering goes, it could be for a variety of reasons. How long ago did you plant the bulb? Is this new bulb you started this year, or one that you have been growing for a few years? March 14, 2013 at 5:17pm Reply

  • Amer: Lovely article on one of my favorite flowers. Bulbs in general and paperwhites in particular are such a symbol of optimism!
    Paperwhites have a gorgeous aroma and also very potent. Even a single blossom is enough to fill a small room with fragrance. To my knowledge however it is not a fragrance you are likely to find in a perfume (as a natural extract or a reconstitution). In fact I don’t know if a natural extraction even exists (in my opinion there must be an absolute since there is a narcissus one, and the flower is not as potent as paperwhites -then again there is the case of syringa…). What are your thoughts on the matter? March 14, 2013 at 4:49pm Reply

    • Andy: I agree, the sight (and smell) of flowering bulbs is a huge mood-lifter!

      The scent of paperwhites is very interesting. I don’t know, but I would hazard to guess that there probably aren’t any fragrances in any format that truly capture the scent of a blooming paperwhite. The scent is so complex, and it seems to me that the way fresh paperwhites smell has a lot to do with the particular way that fragrance diffuses in the air. I don’t know about any raw materials derived from paperwhite narcissi either. Victoria might have some insight on this matter. I’m intrigued by this too! March 14, 2013 at 5:25pm Reply

      • Victoria: I’ve only encountered narcissus absolute and jonquille absolute which are slightly different. One of my favorite narcissus soliflorals was a perfume from L’Artisan launched as a limited edition. The absolute smells very leathery and green, and it is one of the most fascinating raw materials. March 15, 2013 at 6:18am Reply

        • Amer: AND most expensive… March 15, 2013 at 9:25am Reply

          • Amer: and therefore not included in any mainstream or known niche perfume that I know of March 15, 2013 at 9:26am Reply

            • Victoria: It is in Tom Ford Champaca Absolute and in many by Kilians. I recall that it’s in Kelly Caleche by Hermes. It is used, but you’re right, it’s expensive and rare. Most big launches can’t afford it. March 15, 2013 at 9:55am Reply

              • Amer: hmmm, TF Champaca. Only tested this once and it was a mess on my skin. Perhaps I need to check it again as an avid white floral lover, especially if the narcissus is detectable in it March 16, 2013 at 4:32am Reply

      • Lacrimae Rerum: Yes indeed a complex and interesting scent. I like it, but to my husband it is thoroughly unpleasant, “exactly like an electrical fire” in his words, so he doesn’t care to have them around. March 15, 2013 at 11:30am Reply

        • Andy: Narcissi do have a particularly strong and heady scent, so I can understand your husband’s issue with them. In my estimate, it seems like about half of everyone who has smelled my paperwhites loves the scent, and the other half can’t leave the room fast enough! March 16, 2013 at 8:36am Reply

  • Marcos: I usually grow hyacinth plants timing them for Easter and I will try paperwhites too this spring. My favourite are tulips, but I have no luck with them. Thank you for your detailed explanations and photos. March 15, 2013 at 3:52am Reply

    • Andy: That’s a lovely tradition, Marcos. I’ve never tried growing any bulbs indoors other than paperwhites and amaryillis, but I want to try hyacinths too. March 16, 2013 at 8:48am Reply

  • OperaFan: Andy – These are some wonderful tips. My son’s school had the bulbs in their fundraising last fall and I bought some. I actually have mine in a pot (yes, with soil) and they bloomed beautifully.
    I noticed you indicated composting the spent bulbs, but what if I want to keep them for the next round of bloom? Should I do anything special with them once the leaves dry out? keep watering the pot, or allow the soil to dry with the bulb and wait till I see new shoots coming out to start watering? March 15, 2013 at 9:29am Reply

  • Andy: Paperwhites certainly can be grown in soil without a problem. The main reason I like growing in pebbles is simply because it is less messy to plant the paperwhites this way.

    Unfortunately, paperwhites aren’t known for being the best bulbs for re-blooming. I haven’t tried to get them to flower again, but the sources I’ve read seem to say that it is difficult to coax paperwhites into blooming again, and that when they do, the flowers are often sparse and weak. Since paperwhites are inexpensive and readily available, you are probably better off just buying new bulbs every year. March 16, 2013 at 8:56am Reply

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