Paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta) are the perfect winter indoor growing project for kids. In just four to six weeks after planting, jaunty blooms cheerfully promise that spring is on its way. And their fragrance is magnificent! All you need are a few bulbs, a watertight container and some pebbles or marbles. Paperwhites grow well in water, so you don't need soil. Each bulb contains everything else it needs to flower. You and your child can practically watch them grow, and once the bulbs sprout, you can measure the leaves and stems daily—they grow that quickly. When the buds begin to swell, lightly tie a wide ribbon halfway up the stems and make a bow with trailing ends. This helps the stems stand upright and adds to the fun.
In China, paperwhites traditionally bloom for Chinese New Year. This year, the Year of the Snake begins on January 24, 2001. If you plant some bulbs between December 14 and 21, you and your child can usher in the Chinese New Year with your own flowering paperwhites.
Paperwhites are tender members of the daffodil family and are often naturalized in the southern U.S. in places like Houston, Texas, San Diego, California, and Miami, Florida (USDA Zones 9 to 11), where other spring-flowering bulbs won't grow because they require a cooling period for root development. Paperwhites don't require a chilling period. In fact, they're injured at temperatures below 35°F (2°C).
In fall and early winter, paperwhites are readily found at local nurseries and home improvement centres. You can also purchase them through catalogues. (See the Web sites below for two online Canadian sources.) Several types of paperwhites are on the market. The most common variety is 'Ziva', which produces clusters of pure white blooms with a strong, spicy fragrance. But though the name suggests it, not all paperwhites are white. 'Grand Soleil d'Or' features lemon to gold petals framing a yellow-orange cup, and it smells delicate and fruity. 'Chinese Sacred Lily' has white petals surrounding a yellow cup and releases a wonderful, subtle aroma. And 'Constantinople' has double white petals with an orange centre and a light fragrance. If you purchase more bulbs than you plan to plant right away (you may want to plant a succession of bulbs every two weeks for continuous bloom), store them in a cool, dark place (5 to 10°C or 45 to 50°F) to keep them from sprouting too soon.
To plant bulbs, choose a glass or ceramic bowl 8 to 10 centimetres (3 to 4 inches) tall. You can also use a wicker basket with a plastic insert. A six-inch-diameter bowl is perfect for three bulbs; a seven-inch for five or six. Fill container 2/3 full with pebbles or marbles to anchor roots as they grow. Place bulbs on pebbles, pointed end up and 13 centimetres (1/2-inch) apart. Add more pebbles to position the bulbs firmly, leaving top half of bulbs exposed.