Not all bulbs sold in garden centers in the fall are supposed to be planted outdoors, at least not in cooler climates.
The first exception is the amaryllis (Hippeastrum), but few gardeners make the mistake of trying to plant it outdoors. It seems that even novices understand that the amaryllis is an indoor bulb. But the other exception is the Paperwhite narcissus. Unfortunately gardeners from cooler climates often do plant it outdoors, not realizing that it isn’t hardy. And then nothing comes up in spring. Here’s why:
Paperwhite narcissus (now officially called Narcissus papyraceus, although it is still sold under its old name, N. tazetta) originally comes from southern Europe and northern Africa, a warm temperate to subtropical climate. Compare that to most other narcissus which hail from climates with cold, snowy winters: that’s quite a difference! Paperwhite narcissus can be planted outdoors, but only in mild climates (zones 8-11). It is simply not hardy in temperate regions.
Garden centers sell Paperwhite bulbs for forcing, that is, for growing indoors. And usually there is a photo accompanying the bulb showing it growing indoors in a pot. Still, it is a narcissus, so mistakenly planting them outdoors is not impossible.
These days, there are many cultivars of Paperwhite narcissus on the market. I’ve seen the following names: ‘Galilee’, ‘Ziva’, ‘Nomy’, ‘Omri’, ‘Yalel’ and ‘Sheleg’. All are single-flowered narcissus with small, clustered, highly perfumed white flowers. In fact, they all look pretty much the same. The named cultivars are just a bit more compact and faster to bloom than the species.
How to Grow Paperwhite Narcissus
Paperwhite narcissus is certainly easy enough to grow. And it blooms quickly, too, often in as little as 5-6 weeks. Here’s what to do:
Plant four or five bulbs in a 6 to 8 inch (15 to 20 cm) pot. You can use potting soil or decorative stones. Bury the rounded part of the bulb: you can leave the tip exposed if you prefer. Water well and place in a sunny spot at cool temperatures, if possible. Nights below 65˚F (18˚C) are ideal.
Some authorities suggest you put the bulbs in a dark spot a first and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it really isn’t necessary. Certainly they should be moved to full sun as soon as leaves start to appear… and that can be within days of planting the bulbs.
If you can’t give the bulbs cool night temperatures, don’t be too concerned. The plant will flower well under warm nights too, but then tends to etiolate (stretch) and thus may need staking. Intense sunlight will help keep the plant more compact if you have no control over the temperature.
Or get it drunk! Studies show that watering Paperwhite narcissus with a very dilute solution of alcohol will give a more compact plant. You choose the drink – vodka, gin, rubbing alcohol, etc. – but is has to be distilled alcool. Avoid beer and wine: they contain too much sugar and that can stimulate the growth of fungi. Dilute the alcohol at a rate of 1 part to 8 to 10 parts water.
After Your Paperwhite Blooms
After flowering, you might as well toss the bulbs into the compost bin, because they won’t bloom again. Or at least that’s what I was always told.
I’ve discovered that this is not really true, that it is possible to recuperate Paperwhite narcissus bulbs and see them bloom again. Here’s what to do.
When the flowers have faded, continue to water the bulbs through the winter and spring, preferably at cool temperatures (they will tolerate up to about 40˚F/4˚C). Give them full sun and fertilize regularly. Flowering causes the bulbs to shrink in size; it takes sun and minerals to get them to fill out again. Don’t cut off the leaves as long as they are green.
When summer comes, you can put the bulbs outside. My experience is that the foliage lasts a long time, until July, sometimes even August. When it finally does start to turn yellow, stop watering. You can leave the bulbs in their pot or, if you prefer, dig them up and store them dry in a paper bag or a cardboard box.
Late in the fall, although you haven’t watered for months, small pale yellow shoots will appear at the tip of the bulbs. This is sign they are ready to grow again. Pot them up again if necessary and start to water them, giving them the treatment described above. Soon your Paperwhites will be in bloom again.
I found I could get my Paperwhites to rebloom once for sure, usually twice. After that, the bulbs had multiplied so massively that the bulbs were too small to bloom. I’ve never gone further than this stage and simply composted the small bulbs.
So, yes, you can recuperate Paperwhite bulbs… but it is much simpler to buy fresh bulbs each fall!