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Blackwelder column: Paperwhites for Christmas

Paperwhites have become almost as synonymous during the Christmas Holidays as poinsettias. Paperwhites are actually narcissus bulbs, one of the easiest flower bulbs for homeowners to force. Since these bulbs require no chilling and very little effort, it’s the perfect plant for the younger gardener.
The classic paperwhite has vibrant snow-white, star-shaped petals with yellow stamens; however there are some yellow cultivars and other color blends. There are also paperwhite cultivars that have little or no fragrance, a major fault of the cultivar.
Paperwhites can be easily forced indoors utilizing 3- to 4-inch deep decorative containers without drainage holes. Place 1 to 2 inches of washed gravel or stones in the bottom of the container. Then carefully place the bulbs on the gravel or stones, making sure the bulbs are pointed with the top upward. Then place more gravel or stones over and around the bulbs to keep them in place. Some indoor gardeners like to be creative and substitute colored stones or marbles for washed stone or gravel.
The next step is to add just enough water to the container to bring it to base of the bulbs. It is important to maintain it at this level. However, do not immerse the bulbs in water; only the lower half of the bulbs should be under water.
Paperwhites will flower under any light conditions. However, it’s best to start them in a bright, cool room between 60 and 65 degrees fahrenheit until the shoots grow to be 1 to 2 inches tall. The bulbs should then be moved to a warmer location. Paperwhite bulbs started in a warm room have a tendency to flop over. When the plants begin to flower, remove them from direct sunlight and place plants in coolest area of the home, which will prolong the longevity of the flowers. No fertilizer is needed to force paperwhites.
Unfortunately, no matter your intentions with temperature and light, paperwhites often get tall and leggy. So to keep them upright, you can support them with a decorative plant ring or a circle of stakes and twine. You may need to stake them before they actually begin to flower.
Paperwhites usually flower in 4 to 8 weeks and only bloom once. These bulbs are native to the Mediterranean and are cold-tender and unable to survive outdoors, so discard them when the flowers are spent.
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Darrell Blackwelder is an agricultural agent in charge of horticulture with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County.

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