Adventures with Paperwhites

– Posted in: Experiments, How-to, Narcissus, What's up/blooming
14 comments

Sometimes an old house with a drafty basement comes in handy. According to Bulb Forcing for Beginners and the Seriously Smitten by Art Wolk, hyacinth bulbs should be chilled for at least ten weeks at 48°F (9°C). Okay, that is the ideal, between 40°F (4.4°C) and 50°F (10°C) should be fine. I have had a lot of trouble forcing hyacinths the last few years, ever since our heating system was upgraded and the temperature in the basement never drops below 50°F. It hovers between 51° (10.5°C) and 52° (11.1°C), which I wouldn’t expect to make that much of a difference, but it’s the only thing I can account for hyacinth bloom stalks not rising up past the leaves.

I’ve also tried storing the dry bulbs in our second refrigerator. No fruit is stored in this refrigerator–fruit gives off ethylene gas, which keeps the flowers from blooming–but other food is. The ideal temperature for chilling food is above 32°F (0°C) but no higher than 40°F (4.4°C), quite a bit colder than the ideal bulb chilling temperature. Many of my bulbs rotted, and this could be why. Or maybe it was just a bad batch of bulbs.

That’s why I didn’t try to force hyacinths this year.

Instead, I decided to give paperwhites another go. I purchased a bunch of ‘Ariel’ paperwhites because this variety is supposed to be shorter than many paperwhites. I tried the first batch in clear vases on pebbles, using the tallest vases I had to avoid the need for staking.

One took off right away, one made progress, and one just sat there. Why?

The one that is stalled in the photo above is still stalled two months later. Still no sign of root growth, but the shoot is still green and firm, and the bulb–as much as I can feel of it–is still firm, so I haven’t removed it from the glass to see what’s going on.

And they did need staking. Even the ones in the glass vases.

I couldn’t really stake the ones in the glasses, though, so I just tied ribbon around them, and then sometimes they leaned over with the ribbon.

How to prevent leaning

Art Wolk says they should be forced at temperatures below 70°F (21°C) otherwise they get leggy. I kept them out of the warmest room of the house (where the wood stove is) but where I did force them was probably in the high 60s. Note to self: next year try them in the room furthest away from the wood stove.

Another way to keep them short is by adding alcohol to the water. Full directions here. This only works if you force the bulbs on pebbles, and it didn’t work so well for me, the one time I tried it.

And another thing, despite being the “easiest bulbs to force,” you do still have to water them. If you don’t water them in a timely fashion, some of the buds will blast.

This is what a blasted bud looks like. If you peel it open, you see that the immature flowers are all dried up. It will never bloom.
If you put some bulbs over pebbles in an opaque container, such as this pretty mosaic cache pot, it will be very hard to know when the water level has dropped, so your paperwhites might not get watered in a timely fashion, and a few buds might blast.

Sometimes the most attractive containers don’t have drainage holes, so you either risk drowning them in sodden soil or drying them out in pebbles that weren’t topped up in time: One of the conundrums of indoor winter gardening.

And–the fragrance–or should I say odor?–is not for everyone. I always hope it will smell like the poet’s narcissus of spring, and it kinda-sorta does for about one day. The rest of the time it smells “off,” not quite rotten but not really nice, either.

In conclusion . . .

If I remember to look at this post before splurging on bulbs to force again, I will try the narcissus that are not quite paperwhites, such as ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’, which, according to Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, takes a little bit longer to force, but smells better. And I will pot them all up in potting soil, and skip the pebbles.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

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Rockford Beloit February 25, 2020, 1:32 pm

I haven’t always had the best luck forcing bulbs, glad to know I’m not the only one. Those Paperwhites sure are pretty!

Eileen February 21, 2020, 6:12 pm

Kathy – I usually go tromping out in the snow, but today I robbed the kindling box !Cutting ahead of time is the way to go- thanks!

Eileen February 21, 2020, 12:43 pm

This year I potted up tulip bulbs and left them in my garage for about 10 weeks, brought them in and are blooming now.
A friend and coworker would stake up paperwhites and amaryllis by cutting branches, like birch ,and use them to hold up the stalks. I do that now and they look pretty, rather than trying to stake with bamboo or tying them up. Use the end branches with a lot of branching so they can be supports for the lanky bulb foliage and flower stalks. Thanks for your blog!

Kathy Purdy February 21, 2020, 1:09 pm

Glad to hear the tulip bulbs are blooming for you, Eileen. And great idea about using branches. Do you cut them ahead of time and store them in the house until you need them, or go out tromping in the snow and cut them when you are potting up the bulbs?

Mary's Garden Grows February 20, 2020, 1:06 pm

I tried a amaryllis for the first time this year and it was so gorgeous that I’m hooked so next year, I’ll have to try paperwhites! Thanks for sharing great information!!

Kathy Purdy February 20, 2020, 2:42 pm

You’re welcome, Mary, and thanks for commenting!

Carol February 20, 2020, 9:08 am

Good info, Kathy. I’ve forced hyacinths using he “bulbs in the back of the fridge” method and it works pretty well for me.

Kathy Purdy February 20, 2020, 2:41 pm

Yes, it has worked in the past for me, too, but lately–not so much.

Lisa at Greenbow February 20, 2020, 7:08 am

They are gorgeous Kathy. I don’t try to force any bulbs anymore. I don’t seem to have the best luck with them. I have turned my early bloom seeking eye to growing Galanthus outside. They are always showing up and doing what they should at an early time.

Kathy Purdy February 20, 2020, 8:04 pm

Yes, I love galanthus, too. It’s fine to buy some pre-forced bulbs at the grocery store, of course.

sandy lawrence February 19, 2020, 11:06 pm

Good info, Kathy, thanks! Sorry to hear ‘Ariel’ starts going ‘off’ in the scent department. My Ariels are just now getting buds. One variety that I forced – and I’m pleased with in all departments, including a divine scent – is ‘Winter Sun.’ Prolific flowers & very long-lasting, too. I forced two terracotta pots of them. Stems are nice and strong and stand up by themselves, so not having to tie or stake, a first for me. If I don’t force any other kind of narcissus next fall, I will certainly do a repeat with ‘Winter Sun’.

Kathy Purdy February 20, 2020, 8:02 pm

Thanks, Sandy. I’ve grown ‘Winter Sun’ before and has the best luck starting it in my basement under lights, and then bringing it upstairs when the flowers opened.

Beth @ PlantPostings February 19, 2020, 10:25 pm

They’re beautiful, Kathy! I haven’t tried to force bulbs for a couple of years. I’ll have to put it on the to-do list for next year.

Kathy Purdy February 20, 2020, 8:03 pm

It does help the winter go by.