Perfect Paperwhites in Pots

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Perfect Paperwhites in Pots

One of the easiest and most popular winter duties is growing pots of beautiful, fragrant Paperwhite Narcissus.  Paperwhites provide clusters of white flowers and perfume the season when we you need it most, and you can time them to bloom exactly when you desire.  For a beautiful blooming centerpiece on your Thanksgiving table, start them on the fourth week of October, for Christmas Day bloom on the last week of November and for New Year’s Day flowers on the first week of December.  Valentine’s Day bloom would be a mid-January start date.

Unlike most forced bulbs that require a period of dark, cool temperatures, Paperwhites will grow and bloom without waiting…even without soil!  It’s easy . . . no need to overcomplicate the process.

Start with the biggest bulbs you can find.  Bigger bulbs mean more flowers.  Small bulbs may not flower at all.  Try this . . . with a medium size hand, see if you can reach around the bulb and touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your middle finger.  If you can, shop somewhere else; these bulbs are too small.  A one inch gap is even better.  Use as many bulbs as will fit in the container you plan to use.  Crowd them together, nearly touching; anything less will look sparse later on.

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Paperwhites will grow in just about any container, from a shallow bowl surrounded with pebbles, a low pot filled with dirt, or even a tall clear vase that is wide enough to hold a cluster of bulbs set on top of some pebbles.  For fun, I’ve even used teacups and Mason jars.  To hold the bulbs in place, use almost any material, including pebbles, shards of rock, glass marbles, broken tiles, sand or soil.  Be creative, but be careful to coordinate the container with the table and décor where it will eventually be displayed.  Clear glass vases, either short and wide or tall and narrow, partly filled with clear glass stones or marbles is especially classy.  The all glass display allows the roots and bulb to be seen and makes a striking presentation on a table.

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Put a shallow layer of your planting material in the bottom of the container and place the bulbs on top of this . . . cover the bulbs with more of the material and, depending upon your style, leave the tip of the bulb either just below the surface or as much as half exposed. Keep in mind that the bulbs will push themselves upwards slightly as they grow.

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Add water over the bulbs into the planter until the water reaches a level just below the bottom of the bulbs.  Check the water level every day or two and add more as needed.  Soon leaves will grow, followed by fragrant white flowers.

The most common frustration of growing Paperwhites is that they become tall and floppy.  To avoid this, grow the container outdoors, in a bright location away from the house, where they receive the full effects of warm days, cool nights and strong light.  When the buds are plump and about ready to pop, bring them indoors and enjoy them.  Conversely, if you keep the Paperwhites indoors during their entire growing time, they’ll be a floppy mess, held together with twine, sticks and other unsightly props.

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Another alternative to floppy Paperwhites is to plant several bulbs in a tall glass vase, about six or eight inches wide and three times as tall.  Put a few inches of marbles or stones in the bottom, place the bulbs on top and then add more marbles or stones to cover the bulbs as previously described.  When the stems are tall and blooming they will be nicely supported by the sides of the vase.

Now for a fun trick.  Cornell University research found that a touch of booze is a great way to keep Paperwhites from getting too tall.  Dilute solutions of alcohol – but not sugary beer or wine – are an effective way to shorten stem and leaf growth.

When a 4 to 6 percent dilution of liquor is properly used, Paperwhites will grow 30 to 50% smaller, but their flowers will be just as large, fragrant and long-lasting.  With a little jiggering – no pun intended – your Paperwhite display will be sturdy and full, not floppy.


(Photo Reference)

If you decide to liquor up your Paperwhites this holiday season, wait until the shoots are a couple of inches high, then drain the water and replace it with the solution of 4 to 6 percent alcohol – such as dry gin, unflavored vodka, whiskey, white rum, gold tequila or mint schnapps.  To get a 5 percent solution from 80-proof liquor, which is 40 percent alcohol (such as gin, vodka, whiskey, rum or tequila), add one part liquor to seven parts water.  Don’t overdo it, concentrations over 10 percent alcohol may harm the plants. Don’t use beer or wine.

Simply use this solution, instead of water, for further watering of your bulbs. It’s as simple as that.  You can have some fun by doing a simple experiment having one bowl of bulbs grown with normal water and the other with the alcohol.

This may be the only time this holiday season that a nip of gin will prevent something from falling over.

By |2018-05-09T13:54:00+00:00November 9th, 2016|Fall, Gardening, Holiday, Home Decor|9 Comments

About the Author:

Ron Vanderhoff is a lifelong Southern California gardener and the General Manager and Vice President of Roger’s Gardens. He is a local director of the California Native Plant Society and serves on a number of state and local advisory committees involving horticultural education and natural resource protection. He was a principal contributor to The Butterflies of Orange County and The Wildflowers of Orange County and the Santa Ana Mountains, as well as a special contributor to The Sunset Western Garden Book.


  1. diane Mazurie October 21, 2014 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    I applaud the person who wrote this article. Not only was it the most informative “how to” I think I have ever read but it was done with such candidness and humor I didn’t want to skip a word. Well Done!!!

    – See more at:

  2. Ron Vanderhoff October 21, 2014 at 6:56 pm - Reply

    You’re too kind Diane, but if I ever need a press agent, you are at the top of my list!

  3. Mary October 24, 2016 at 6:54 pm - Reply

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am going to do this for my Christmas foyer table. Paper whites will taken center stage, planted in and surrounded by my collection of Blue and White porcelain. I typically don’t place fragrant flowers on a dinner table. I will be running up to Roger’s this week! Happy Autumn!

  4. Heather October 24, 2016 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    I concur!

  5. Sherry Groff October 24, 2016 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    Bravo- well written- Simplified with great tips!!
    Thank you!!

  6. Janet Earl October 24, 2016 at 11:42 pm - Reply

    Great information, I’m going to give it a run. Wish me well

  7. jane olinger October 31, 2017 at 6:19 am - Reply

    The alcohol trick WORKED for me late year!!!
    Do you have Paperwhite bulbs in now?

    • Roger's Gardens October 31, 2017 at 11:31 am - Reply

      Hi Jane,

      Yes, we have our normal very large “jumbo-size” paperwhite bulbs in stock now. If you plant in the next day or two you still might get them in bloom for Thanksgiving Day.


  8. Patty November 5, 2017 at 10:49 am - Reply

    Now I know why my paperwhites from 2 years ago never bloomed. I agree great article. Thank you

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