Forcing and “Pickling” Paperwhites

by Kathryn Hamilton

Although many varieties of bulbs can be forced to grow indoors,


from October to March, one of the easiest is paperwhites, Narcissus tazetta.

The cultivar Ziva, introduced in the 1970’s, is the most popular. It is considered an easy, reliable bloomer with strong fragrance. In the early nineties I remember being able to get Zivas only online and having to pay more for a Ziva than I did for an ordinary “paperwhite.” Today, Zivas are synonymous with paperwhites and are readily found in stores ranging from the finest garden shops to the big box stores. The difference is likely to be bulb size with smaller bulbs costing less but also being less productive. The largest-size paperwhites are 17+cm, measured at the fattest part of the bulb.

Paperwhites can be planted in pebbles and water or in soil.

  • If planting in water, be sure the water only touches the roots. If the bulb sits in water it will rot.
  • If planning in soil, place the bulb in damp soil, and cover the bulbs to their necks, leaving the tip exposed. Be sure that your pot has a drainage hole.

Overwatering in the early stages is one of the biggest causes of failure.  My research tells me that paperwhites planted in October will take longer to bloom than those planted in March. I haven’t been able to figure out why this is so, but it’s a bonus for those of us just starting now.

For a continuous bloom all season, plant bulbs every 10 days. Keep surplus bulbs in a cool, dark spot.

Pickling your Paperwhites

Zivas grow 16 – 18” tall and frequently flop. So if you are forcing paperwhites

Photo: Cornell University

this season you may want to give them a shot of alcohol, according to a study conducted by the Flower Bulb Research Program at Cornell University.

The study found that watering a plant with a 4% – 6% alcohol solution will actually stunt its growth by one-half to one-third without affecting the size or number of flowers. Once the plants are rooted and one-to-two inches tall, replace the water with the diluted alcohol. Use any alcohol, from rubbing alcohol, to gin, or rum. Don’t use beer or wine because of their high sugar content. Stay well under 10% alcohol; a 25% dilution will almost certainly be toxic.

Here’s how to compute a 5% solution: divide the alcohol content of the spirit by five and the resulting number will give you the dilution. As an example, if the alcohol content is 40, dividing by five gives you eight. Therefore, you need an eight-part solution: one part alcohol and seven parts water.

Some sites indicate that this process also works for amaryllis.

New Cultivars

I wasn’t able to determine when they were first introduced, but a handful of online retailers are carrying three newer varieties of narcissus: Inball,  Nir, and Ariel. Here is information excerpted from  where I bought mine. (This is also a great site for sourcing amaryllis as the site groups the bulbs by characteristic: fast growing; large flowering, double form, and exotic.)

Nir produces flowers that are about 10% larger than those of Ziva. The fragrance is classically strong and rich. This variety produces an average of 2.5-3 flower stems per bulb, each with a cluster of 9-14 florets, about 3-4 weeks after planting.

Inball is a beautiful paperwhite that produces blooms that are about 10% larger than those of the classic

Photo: Ariel from

Ziva. It also carries a softer scent and is said to produce the most flowers per stem of any narcissus cultivar. Maturing at 12-14″, these are the shortest of any paperwhites, although as with others, growing them in low light typically results in taller stems. Inball produces an average of two flower stems per bulb, each with clusters of 8-14 florets, about 4-5 weeks after planting.

One website described Inball as “scentless,” which will be disappointing for me, since the primary reason I grow paperwhites is the intoxicating fragrance. I’ve ordered all three cultivars and plan to compare and contrast.

Ariel, is a little shorter than the other cultivars and with extra strong stems, there’s less chance of head-heavy flower stems angling sideways or flopping. The blooms are numerous (bud count is high) and larger than those of the classic Ziva. Flowers are about 10% larger than industry standard. Ariel typically blooms 3-5 weeks from planting, depending on growing conditions.

Here is a link to the Cornell report and four on forcing bulbs from the NC Cooperative Extension Service.

Pickling Your Paperwhites: