Story last updated at 2:26 p.m. Thursday, December 5, 2002

Christmas blossoms easy with paperwhite narcissus
Rosemary Fitzpatrick
The Kachemak Gardener

I love to force paperwhite narcissus. They are one of the more satisfying houseplant experiences that you will ever have.

But first, let's read up on just what these lovelies really are: "Narcissus papyraceus, syn. N. 'Paper White,' N. 'Paper White Grandiflorus' (Paperwhite narcissus). Division 8 daffodil with erect, keeled, glaucous, mid-green leaves, 12 in. long. Bears clusters of up to 10 strongly fragrant, glistening white flowers, 1/2 in. across, from winter to early spring. S. France, S. Spain, N. Africa."

Now with that under our belt, let's see what a Division 8 daffodil is: "Tazetta cultivars. Small-flowered cultivars produce up to 20 flowers per stem; larger-flowered cultivars bear 3 or 4 flowers per stem.

They have thick stems, wide leaves, broad perianth segments, and small cups (coronas). They are usually scented, and are good as cut flowers. Some cultivars are less hardy and should be grown in a cool greenhouse."

Once again I give thanks to The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants for the above quotes. I love this book, and if you don't have it yet, put it on your Christmas list.

It is too heavy (9 1/4 pounds) for bedtime reading, but if you leave it out on your desk or kitchen table or wherever and peruse it now and again, you can learn a ton of details that you just did not know existed.

And it has good pictures.

There, now that we know what we are talking about I can go on and let you know just what you need to do to have these lovelies blooming by Christmas. I hope you bought these back in September when I told you to and they have been stored in your refrigerator.

Last year I bought two glass vases that are 12 inches tall and 6 inches wide, basically cylinders. I filled the bottom 3 or 4 inches with white rocks from the beach. This adds weight to the base of the vase so when the plants have reached maturity they will not tip the whole thing over. (Of course, you do not need to use WHITE rocks, you can use any color you want, there really is lots to choose from.)

Each vase received five paperwhite bulbs placed on top of the rocks. Then I added filtered water to the bottom of the bulbs. In no time, roots were shooting out and holding down the bulbs by twining around the rocks.

The wonderful part of all this is that the vase eliminated the need to stake the plants once they start blooming. In the past I have planted them in shallow containers with dirt, and the plant flopped all over the place, often tipping over completely -- usually in the middle of the night, causing much speculation as to just what that noise could be before one of us would mosey out for an inspection only to find a mess on the tabletop.

Our low light conditions and the overall warmth of modern houses encourages these plants to grow much taller than we would expect. They will go a good 2 feet before topping out. This year I hope to find room in the refrigerator for them to spend the night. I am hoping for a stockier plant, but I may end up with one that will not be blooming for the holidays. We'll see.

Last year, I used filtered water because I did not want anything growing in the vase besides the paperwhites. You can imagine the mold and scum and all things weird that would thrive in such a milieu.

Filtered water worked perfectly, but I have made yet another discovery: the sedum Matrona that I cut as a bouquet this fall has rooted, and I have been using regular tap water. I had no intention of rooting this cutting, but let's not look a gift horse in the mouth, as "they" say. So if this plant sent out lovely roots and is thriving in a vase of tap water, I have deduced that the paperwhites probably will do just dandy under the same conditions.

You certainly may use soil for this endeavor. Fill a pot with nice clean potting soil and place the bulb about two-thirds into the soil, leaving the top exposed. Keep the soil evenly moist and you will have blooming narcissus in no time.

Get creative about what container you use. Something waterproof, something interesting, but not so interesting that you don't notice the plant.

If I am planting them in a circle, I lean them all toward the center, that will help the flopping around problem, but not solve it. The more mature they become and the bloomier they are, the more top heavy they get.

Bamboo stakes with raffia will help the situation for a bit.

The very loveliest thing about paperwhites is that they need not be chilled prior to planting. You can just go ahead and plant them and expect blooms in three to four weeks. They are fool-proof. Really. Trust me.

But be prepared for the scent. There are those who will gag at the very thought of a blooming paperwhite. And, thankfully, there are those who treasure the odor as one of the great gifts of nature.

You knew there had to be a catch, and there it is.

NOTE: If you have purchased a Christmas tree and are not ready to bring it into the house, take a fresh cut and leave it in a bucket of water in the garage or somewhere else protected and cool.