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Hort in the Home Landscape

Forcing Paperwhites for Holiday Decor

Flowering bulbs of all kinds can be forced indoors to create a beautiful and long lasting flower display for your home and it's something I love to do every year for the holidays!   The term forcing refers to a technique that imitates the environmental conditions that bulbs encounter outdoors, thereby tricking them into flowering earlier. Essentially, it allows you to bring the outdoor beauty of bulbs indoors!

The key is to imitate the environmental conditions that bulbs encounter outdoors. This means that most flowering bulbs need a cold treatment before they will initiate a flower. This would apply to most of our spring flowering bulbs in Illinois like tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, and others. Outdoors, we plant these bulbs in the fall so that they get the cold temperatures of winter and then flower for us the following spring. This can easily be replicated indoors by placing bulbs in the refrigerator or in a cool garage or basement for a period of time.

Luckily though, there are other bulbs that do not need a cold treatment in order to flower, making the process much more simple. Paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus) is an example of one of those. Paperwhites are native to the Mediterranean and as a result are tender bulbs. Since we are not in hardiness zones 8 to 11 here in Illinois, we typically force these bulbs, enjoy their beauty, and then discard or compost. Their prolific white blooms and ease of growth make paperwhites an excellent choice for holiday décor.

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The unique thing about forcing bulbs is that they can be planted in containers with or without drainage since they're only going to be in the container for a short period of time. I personally love the look of paperwhites forced in a shallow clear containers with decorative stones, like the one above. To plant in a container without drainage, select a 3- to 4-inch deep decorative container that does not have drainage holes. Place 1 to 2 inches of washed gravel or stones in the bottom of the container and carefully, place the bulbs on the gravel or stones. Bulbs can be placed as close as desired. Next, place enough gravel or stones over or around the bulbs to hold them in place.

To use a pot that has drainage, again select one that is 3 to 4 inches deep, and plant the bulbs in a well-drained potting mix with the tops of the bulbs even or slightly below the rim of the pot.


In a container with no drainage holes, add just enough water to bring it to base of the bulbs and maintain it at this level through the life of the planting. Do not immerse the bulbs in water, only the basal plate of the bulb where the roots originate should be in water. In a container with drainage, simply water the soil thoroughly after planting and keep it moist thereafter.


Paperwhites will flower under any light conditions. However, for best results, to start off, place the bulbs in a window area with a southern exposure. When the plants begin to flower, remove them from direct sunlight and place plants in coolest area of the home. This helps to prolong the flowering of the plants.

If you can pot up paperwhite narcissus bulbs every 10 days or so starting in the fall, you can have a succession of bloom all through the winter. These forced bulbs make a great decoration for your own home or can make a great gift for the holidays! They do have a bit of an odor though, so choose your locations in the house strategically!