Forcing Bulbs for the Winter: Ziva Paperwhites

Ziva Paperwhites in full bloom.

I cut my early professional teeth in the classroom as a science teacher, a science experiment in its own right--one failed experiment after another in adolescent management, sometimes yelling at these children "who-should-know-better" to "grow." As any good gardener will tell you yelling at a plant to grow is a ridiculous exercise; what plants need from us are the right conditions to grow and they need us to know them and love them enough to create these conditions. Over my decade in the classroom I learned this lesson and created these conditions for my students to learn the vocabulary-heavy subjects of biology, anatomy, and physiology.

Gardening appeals to me because it is science--one experiment after another--building expertise one failed experiment at a time, with intermittent successes. My story of growing Paperwhites was just such an experiment. I was enamored with these beautiful white blossoms in pictures and I thought to myself, I can grow these and brighten the room on these upcoming dark December days.

What I did not know is just how fragrant these flowers are. Once they bloomed and I caught a whiff I was not enamored with the smell. I found this blog from Longfield Gardens (not and affiliate link) that explains that the scent is called indole. "Not everyone likes the smell of indole – especially in large amounts. It has a sweetness that can both repel and attract us at the same time." I fall into the repel category and with the number of bulbs I planted, the aroma was overpowering.

I elected to sell them at my debut visit to the Durango Farmers Market to folks that fall into the attract category. After the small drama of being given a place outside in the sub-freezing weather, I lucked out when another vendor couldn't attend I was able to use their indoor space. I was not able to sell a single one; I guess Durangotangs (as we are called) are also not attracted to these beauties. I ended up giving them away for free at the end of the day, which made a few people's day, so not a bad ending.

This experiment left me with the knowledge that I will not be a local propagator or provider of Ziva Papaerwites at the minimum...but maybe next year I will try a hybridized scentless one because I do love the blooms.


Week One: Second Week in November (27 Weeks Until Last Frost)

We have had a climate-change-attributed extended summer into early November, so these were the last items to be planted outside this season. I bought ten Ziva Paperwhites on sale from Blooming Bulb; the cost of shipping outdid the cost of the bulbs, which is why I am trying to get my own going a skip the shipping next year. I have found that bulbs are durable little plants with one season doubling time, so a gardener only has to only purchase each variety once if you are willing to care for and split them every few years.


Week Two: Third Week in November (26 Weeks Until Last Frost)

These are fast little growers! Already greening up and sending up stems after just one week! I am looking forward to growing these for the winter holidays for their charming little white flowers and yellow stamens. I chose the red pot for contrast with the white.

Week Three: Fourth Week in November (25 Weeks Until Last Frost)

These babies are doing really well in this space on my plant wall. After leaving for nine days for Thanksgiving, we returned to this happy surprise! The second picture is from mid week.  Once they get going they really grow!


Week Four: First Week in December (25 Weeks Until Last Frost)

We have a bloom and some other eminent blooms on the way. I smelled this one having been warned about its smell. It is not terribly overpowering, but not my favorite smell.


Week Five: Second Week in December (24 Weeks Until Last Frost)

So it turns out that I am repelled by the smell of Paperwhites now that they have all bloomed; the smell is overpowering the kitchen where I have taken them out of their soil and repotted them for the farmers market where with just roots and water in some glassware from the Goodwill.

Ziva Paperwhites ready for the farmers market.

Key Learnings from Growing Paperwhites:

  • Paperwhites are the smallest in the Narcissius family (daffodils).
  • Paperwhites are native to the Mediterranean and thus do not require a chilling period before planting.
  • Paperwhites require a hot dry summer in order to bloom again so my chances of getting these to grow again were pretty slim at 6500 feet, though our summers are getting hotter and dangerously drier.
  • The bulbs do well in potting soil and grow a long root system and thus the stems were more stable in the pot than when moved to a glass with just water to hold the bloom in place..
  • Paperwhite blooms do not do well in direct sunlight. The lovely little booms in the photo at the top had dried out from their 20 minutes in the sun and were not market ready the next day.
  • If you plan to grow these as gifts, consider how you might transport them in the cold. A second Paperwhite's stem broke while moving to market. I tried to cover them with plastic as it was 6 degrees when we left the house and the plastic from the bread bag was too much strain on the stem.
  • Not every gardener and plant are a match!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published