A Gardening Journal
The Best Season Ever: First Flowers of the Paperwhites
- Published: January 19 2017
How can it be that I hadn't ever forced paperwhites before a friend brought over a pot of them earlier this month? Their fragrance is shockingly powerful and voluptuous; it's really a slap-in-the-face astonishment.
As narcissus go, the visuals of N. papyraceus aren't much. Each flower is just over an inch across, in clusters atop stems that are often-as-not so tall and lanky they need support. The blossoms wouldn't be worth the trouble just for looks alone.
But, of course, it's the startling fragrance that's the draw: so sweetly intense it could bring on a headache, the perfume of just a single pot can fill a room. And because these bulbs don't need a minimum period of chilly dormancy, they can be brought into bloom at any time, fall through winter. (Paperwhites, amaryllis, and poinsettia are the holy trinity of plants that can easily be found in bloom as early as Christmas.)
My paperwhites are nosing into flower later in January because they were brought to a New Year's Day party by a painter friend who doesn't do anything by halves. The bulbs weren't just rooted into a pot of gravel, oh no: the surface was mossed over and planted with small ferns. Elegant, indeed.
I've kept the pot well-watered in one of the rooms that doesn't receive the warmth of a wood stove. For once, the chill of our 18th-Century house is an asset: in their native Mediterranean habitats of Portugal to Greece, plus Morocco and Algeria, paperwhites flower in chilly days of winter and spring. For this accommodating species, rooms in New England no warmer than fifty degrees Fahrenheit must feel like the off-season outdoors in Seville.
Although paperwhite flowers are nearly fool-proof to force, paperwhite plants can be a trial. Especially when growing at temperatures humans find more bearable indoors—above sixty degrees—the leaves and flowering stems can expand so quickly that they flop. Alas, naturally dwarf cultivars of Narcissus papyraceus aren't yet available, either. This means that a tidy display could require some staking (my friend cuts red stems of Siberian dogwood: a terrific idea!) or, surprisingly, an 80-proof watering strategy I can't wait to try next winter. As reported by Cornell University, growth can be nearly forty percent shorter if the bulbs are watered with gin or vodka that is cut with water. The size, profusion, and fragrance of the flowers is unimpaired. See for yourself:
I'll do a full profile on Narcissus papyraceus after I've mastered the "share your martini" watering tactics researched so ably by the merry folks at Cornell.