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A winter experiment for youth: Forcing paperwhites

News source/writer: Brittnay Haag, 309-663-8306,


URBANA, Ill. – Even though it is cold outside and snow may be covering our gardens, we can still exercise our little ones' green thumbs. Bring the garden inside this winter with fun activities and experiments! Winter is the perfect time for kids to learn basic plant concepts and develop an interest in the garden.

"A great family-friendly activity to bring spring inside is forcing paperwhite bulbs," says Brittnay Haag, University of Illinois Extension horticulture program educator. "Forcing bulbs" is a technique that causes them to flower in conditions other than what they would naturally experience outdoors.

Because of their delicate nature, paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus) bulbs will not overwinter successfully outside in Illinois. However, they are great bulbs to force inside, enjoy the bloom, and then discard. Unlike other bulbs, they do not need a cold treatment before blooming.

To grow paperwhites inside this winter, you need just a few supplies and care.

  1. Purchase bulbs from your local garden center or online company.
  2. Select a 3 to 4 inch deep, clear container with no drainage holes. The container can be a decorative glass or as simple as a plastic cup. The clear sides of the container will give kids a great view of the roots forming from the bulb.
  3. Fill the container three-quarters full of small rocks or marbles.
  4. Place the bulb on top with the tip side facing up.
  5. Fill the container with water until it is just barely covering the bottom of the bulb.
  6. Place the container in a sunny, warm window.
  7. Observe the bulb every day. Make sure to replenish the water as it evaporates or the roots absorb it. Roots and tips will begin to appear in 1 to 2 weeks.
  8. When the bulb begins to flower (about 1 month), move the plant to the coolest area in your house to prolong the bloom. The star-shaped cluster of flowers produces a strong, musky fragrance and are a nice addition to your home décor.

For older children, set up a scientific experiment with multiple bulbs in a variety of situations. Place the containers in shaded versus sunny locations or vary the water levels on the bulbs and see how they grow.

For younger children, this activity also provides the opportunity to learn about the individual parts of the plant and their function.

Still looking of other ideas for indoor winter gardening activities with kids?

"Try decorating a flowerpot for the summer patio garden, making a bird feeder with pinecones coated with birdseed, creating a garden plan and ordering seeds, or visiting your local library to read children's books about gardening," Haag says. "There's enough fun to stay busy all winter long."