Fragrant white winter blooms make heady gifts

Posted Dec. 11, 2009, at 7:21 p.m.

In mid-December, the garden beds buried in new snow, it feels good to be planting something.

I reach into the wrinkled brown paper bag and pull out five bulbs, each covered with a dark brown tissue-paper skin that flakes away in spots to reveal folded leaves, succulent and ivory-white. The bulbs sit upright next to my laptop as I write, resting on basal pads matted with the dry stringy remnants of once vital roots. A new shoot emerges from the pointed apex of each bulb, five pale-green tongues pointed at the ceiling. Three of the bulbs show a second shoot emerging from one side.

They are paperwhite narcissus bulbs, a Christmas gift for Marjorie. I gave her a gift of forced paperwhites several years ago and recently she recalled how much she enjoyed the fragrance of their lovely white flowers, how they filled the house with their heady perfume in the middle of winter. Never let it be said that I can’t take a hint.

Four days ago the bulbs were in a flower shop’s glass-door refrigerator, nestled in a basket of straw. I left them there while I rummaged through the shop’s supply of terra cotta, stored for the winter in a dark shed, looking for just the right pot, the perfect size for five paperwhites planted shoulder to shoulder. I made sure the pot I selected had a drainage hole in the bottom and found a matching saucer to go under it.

I will fill the gift pot with moist (not soggy) potting mix — I decided on Miracle-Gro’s Cactus, Palm, and Citrus Soil, a fast-draining mix — until it is about three-quarters full, then place the five bulbs, new shoots up, on top of the mix, spaced closely so that they almost touch, and finally cover them with more soil up to their necks, leaving the tips exposed.

After watering the pot, I will set it in a cool (50 to 60 degrees F) place away from direct sunlight until Christmas morning when it will be found under the tree, decked with a red ribbon. Since Christmas is just two weeks away, we will need to return the bulbs to the cool pre-forcing area for another week or two. A gentle tug met with firm resistance will tell us when sufficient roots have formed to move the bulbs to a sunny window.

A southern exposure is best for sturdy shoot growth, yet even under optimum winter light, paperwhites have a tendency to topple when in bloom. Santa will put a ball of twine and a few thin bamboo stakes in Marjorie’s stocking and she can support the shoots when they are 8 to 10 inches tall.

When bloom begins, we will relocate the pot from direct sunlight to a cooler location. This will prolong the period of blooming.

After the paperwhites finish blooming, we will toss them on the compost pile. They won’t bloom again indoors and are not winter hardy in Maine.

Forcing paperwhites is nearly bomb-proof, but some attention should be paid to watering. Bulbs sitting in water-logged potting mix soon rot, so water sparingly during the pre-forcing stage, re-watering only when the potting mix is dry one inch below the surface. Once the bulbs are growing in the sunny window, however, they can dry out quickly and will need more frequent watering.

Now, all I have to do is keep Marjorie from reading this week’s column, at least until after Christmas!

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