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What Is a Paperwhite Narcissus?

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  • Written By: L. Whitaker
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 03 September 2016
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The paperwhite narcissus is a perennial flowering bulb, also known by the scientific name Narcissus papyraceus, which is commonly found in Western households during the Christmas season as a container plant. It features multiple white flowers with a distinct fragrance atop each flower stem. Some varieties of paperwhite narcissus feature mixed hues of white and yellow in the flowers. This flower plant belongs to the genus Narcissus that also includes daffodils.

Paperwhites, as they are often known by gardeners, are upright plants that tend to be between 11 and 17 inches (about 30-45 cm) tall at maturity. They can sometimes be top heavy. Planting multiple bulbs in one container together, so that the paperwhite narcissus plants will help hold each other upright, is one solution to this issue. Some sources claim that watering paperwhites with an alcohol solution between 4 and 6 percent will adequately stunt the growth of the plants without negative effects on the resulting flowers. Gardeners can introduce the diluted alcohol solution after the bulb has formed roots and a green shoot is at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) tall.

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As a species that is native to the Mediterranean regions, the paperwhite narcissus can only be expected to flourish outdoors in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 through 11. Otherwise, this plant is simple to force in an indoor container. When using a container with drainage holes, plant the paperwhite bulbs in a potting medium with a pH of 6 to 7 and keep the bulbs moist. Alternatively, plant paperwhites in a non-draining container with a layer of marbles, gravel, or stones to anchor the bulbs in place, pointed ends facing upward. Add enough water to cover the base of the bulbs, but avoid total immersion, which can cause the bulbs to rot.

Paperwhites generally produce flowers under any type of lighting circumstances, but they tend to flower most quickly in a sunny window. The ideal temperature is between 60 and 65 degrees F (about 15.5-18.3 degrees C). Once blooms appear, remove the plant from direct sun and locate it in a cool area to make the flowers last as long as possible.

The primary growing problem with a paperwhite narcissus tends to be a type of basal rot in the bulb. Avoid this issue by purchasing paperwhite narcissus bulbs that appear firm and unblemished. A paperwhite narcissus bulb will only produce blooms one time, so it should be discarded when the plant's flowering time is over.

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