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Forcing paperwhites for holiday décor

News source/writer: Candice Hart, 815-732-2191,


URBANA, Ill. – Longing for a bit of spring during the winter months? A University of Illinois Extension educator suggests "forcing" bulbs indoors to create a beautiful and long-lasting flower display for your home.

"The term 'forcing' refers to a technique that imitates the environmental conditions that bulbs encounter outdoors, thereby tricking them into flowering earlier," says Candice Hart. "Essentially, it allows you to bring the outdoor beauty of bulbs indoors."

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," Hart says. "We plant these bulbs outdoors in the fall so that they are exposed to the winter cold before flowering 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."

Fortunately, there are bulbs that do not need a cold treatment in order to flower, making the process much simpler. Paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus), with its prolific white blooms, is one example. "They are so easy to grow, and make an excellent choice for holiday décor," Hart notes.


"The unique thing about forcing bulbs is that they can be planted in containers with or without drainage, because they'll only be in the container for a short period of time," Hart says. "I personally love the look of paperwhites forced in shallow clear containers with decorative stones."

To plant in a container without drainage, select a 3- to 4-inch deep decorative container. 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 water to the 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," Hart warns. 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, 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 the coolest area of the home. This helps to prolong flowering.

If you can pot up paperwhite narcissus bulbs every 10 days or so starting in the fall, you can have a succession of blooms all through the winter. "These forced bulbs make a great decoration for your own home or gift for the holidays," Hart notes.