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Growing Paperwhites

Here's how to grow paperwhite narcissus bulbs indoors, including how to get their stems to stay upright.

I love growing pure white Narcissus paperwhite bulbs for holiday decorations and gifts, but I wish they wouldn’t get so leggy that they flop over as soon as they start blooming. I talked to Fred Van Bourgondien, seventh-generation member of the K. Van Bourgondien & Sons family, and he said that I am not the only one with this issue. He told me the bulb industry, with Cornell University, has a solution for people like me.
Give them a nip of alcohol. It turns out that alcohol, diluted with water, will shorten the narcissus stems. If you follow our instructions below, the stems will be one-third to one-half shorter than normal, but with the same size flowers. Caution: If you give them too much alcohol, it could be toxic to the plant.

Paperwhite Flowers

Be sure to allow four weeks between the time you pot up your bulbs and the time you want them to bloom. Then, follow these instructions for shorter, sturdier paperwhite stems that won’t flop over. If you want the longer, leggier paperwhites, follow the same instructions but just leave out the alcohol.

Step 1. Select a container for growing your paperwhite bulbs. If the container does not have drainage holes in the bottom, use stones as your planting medium instead of potting soil, or the bulbs may rot before they have a chance to bloom. If your container has drainage holes, fill it with potting soil. For a bulb and container source, check the Womanswork website. We buy our bulbs from Fred Van Bourgondien.

Step 2. Press bulbs, nose up, into the soil or stones, with the tops sticking out. I usually leave at least half of the top of the bulb sticking out.

Paperwhite bulb

Step 3. Water well. If using stones, fill container so that the bottoms of the bulbs are just touching the water. If using soil, keep it damp but not soaking wet.

Step 4. Keep at room temperature in a well-lighted area. After shoots emerge, keep out of the direct sun or the foliage will stretch toward the sun.

Step 5. Begin watering with a dilute solution of four to six percent alcohol when shoots are about one to two inches above the top of the bulbs. (Solution should not exceed 10 percent!) Rubbing alcohol and distilled spirits such as gin, vodka, whiskey, rum and tequila are all fine. Beer and wine are not appropriate because of the sugars they contain. To determine the correct dilute solution, take the percentage of alcohol on the label and divide by five.

  • Example 1: A bottle of gin is labelled 40 percent alcohol. 40 divided by 5 = 8. I need an 8-fold dilution to yield 5 percent alcohol, so I will mix my solution 7 parts water to 1 part gin.
  • Example 2: Rubbing alcohol is 70 percent alcohol. 70 divided by 5 = 14. I need a 14-fold dilution to yield 5 percent alcohol, so I will mix 13 parts water to 1 part rubbing alcohol.

Extending the bloom time of your paperwhites:
As with most flowers, a warm environment can cause paperwhite blossoms to fade faster. Move them to a cooler room at night if you want them to keep their blooms longer.


Start soon if you want to force indoor bulbs for next spring:
Fred Van Bourgendien reminded me that if I want to force bulbs to bloom indoors in the early spring, I need to put them in the refrigerator for six to eight weeks first. So, soon I will be purchasing some of the following: crocus, muscari, hyacinth, daffodil and tulips (‘Single Early’ and ‘Triumph’), which are all bulbs that are good for forcing indoors.


Dorian Winslow is the president of Womanswork, and is passionate about making the best products on the market for women who garden and work outdoors.

Horticulture publishes the free weekly e-newsletter, "Smart Gardening Tips," and "The Curious Gardener," a free monthly e-newsletter with more tips and articles by Dorian. Subscribe to our e-newsletters.