In Praise Of Paperwhites

In Praise Of Paperwhites

The longer I garden, the more I think that I need a little gardening every day.  This can be as little as ten
minutes spent raking leaves or tending the houseplants or reading a good garden book.  In a pinch it can even be the time I spend getting the apple peelings out to the composter and giving the cylinder a good turn or two.  The important thing is to renew the connection every 24 hours.  I like to think that this encourages new growth—inside my head as well as in the beds and plant pots.

Some years I have dispensed with paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta ‘Paperwhite’) altogether, but this year, it seems necessary to have lots of them.  I have not consulted the oracles about whether this winter will be mild or severe, but for some reason I feel that it is important to assure myself a continuing supply of blooms for the weeks and months ahead.  In this respect I am no different than the hundreds of squirrels that pass through my backyard every day.  They gather their nuts and I gather my bulbs and plants.  With luck I will outdo the squirrels and remember where I put my treasures.

Not everyone adores paperwhites.  My daughter, like many people, finds their fragrance cloying, especially as the blossoms age.  I would not care to be in a confined space with 300 blooming paperwhites, but I like the fragrance that a pot of them gives to an average size room.  In economic terms, paperwhites are less desirable than other bulbs, such as amaryllis and colchicum, that are easily forced.  Both of the latter can, with proper care, blossom again, while most authorities say that paperwhite bulbs should be discarded after blooming.  I noticed recently that Llangvelds, a major packager of paperwhite growing kits, says that the bulbs can be planted “deep in the garden” for repeat flowering the following year.  Perhaps these directions work for gardeners who live in the southern states (USDA Zones 9-11).  I have never known a northeastern gardener who planted paperwhite bulbs after forcing.  I suspect that the results might be disappointing.

Having determined that the psychological benefits of paperwhites outweigh the ephemeral nature of the bulbs, I have decided to invest in a quantity of them.  That way I can plant groups of bulbs every ten days or so to ensure a continuing supply of blooms starting about four weeks from now.

Just as all commercially grown African Violets (and a good many other house plants) come from Canada, most of the commercially available paperwhites come from Israel.  The most popular cultivar is ‘Ziva’, which is easy to grow, sports lots of bright white blossoms and an intense musky fragrance.  At this time of year you can venture out to any supermarket, greenhouse or mega-merchandiser and pick up a box of ‘Ziva’ bulbs pre-planted in a plastic pot.  All you have to do is put the pot in a reasonably well-lighted location, add water regularly and wait 4-5 weeks for the blooms.  If you want to save a little money, many garden centers, mail order and online vendors offer loose bulbs.  You plant them yourself in potting mix or in a shallow dish atop a bed of small stones.  Make sure about 1/3 of each bulb is above the soil line, and water well, especially if your bulbs are rooting amidst stones.  For continuous bloom through the winter months, start groups of bulbs at two-week intervals.

For adventurous souls who want to go beyond ‘Ziva’, there are other paperwhite cultivars, many of which seem to be named after Israeli sites.  ‘Bethlehem’, ‘Israel’ and ‘Nazareth’ have yellow petals and cups, while ‘Galilee’ and ‘Jerusalem’ have pure white flowers.  ‘Grand Soleil D’or’ features yellow petals and an orange cup plus a delicate sweet fragrance.  This may be a good choice for those who find ‘Ziva’ overpowering.  ‘Chinese Sacred Lily’ has white petals and a cup described by the catalog copywriter as “cheddar cheese” colored.  The fragrance is categorized simply as “wonderful”.

This year, come winter, my house will not smell like mittens drying on the radiator.  It will smell like
spring—perhaps spring in Israel, but spring nonetheless.  I am depending on the fragrance of paperwhites to waft the stale odors of January and February out my dwelling and out of my soul.

by E. Ginsbug

Free Garden Catalog

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