Just add water, Paperwhites bring a hint of spring
Paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta ) are one of relatively few narcissus that bloom reliably without first having been chilled. That makes the forcing of paperwhite narcissus, if you'll permit me another cliche, as easy as 1-- 2-- 3.
1. Buy bulbs locally or mail order
In the fall, paperwhites may be sold in small bags along with other autumn-planted bulbs. I'm lucky to be near a huge local nursery where I can pick my paperwhites, for about a dollar each, from hundreds in a bushel basket. Mail order sources allow you to choose from the common variety 'Ziva' or a few other cultivars. As with most bulbs, the bigger the better. Bulb bulkiness translates into more vigorous growth and lusher bloom. Paperwhite bulbs can be so eager to grow that you'll see green leaf tips, and that's OK.
2. Choose containers and filler
Now choose a water-holding container (a vase, a glass bowl, even a large drinking glass) and filler (rocks, marbles or other non absorbent material to support the bulb and leave spaces for roots to grow in.) The bulbs are about an inch and a half to two inches in diameter. A glass or vase of three inch diameter will hold one bulb. Three bulbs will be displayed nicely in a six inch diameter bowl or medium rose vase. The container size is up to you; do plant bulbs closely and with all the bulbs at the same level. Consider also that the paperwhites scent can be too bold for some people. I think three bulbs together gives a nice amount of flower while avoiding the overpowering scent that more bulbs can create.
Now add about two inches of filler for the bulbs to rest on and to root into. Buy marbles or decorative stone for a clear vase. Backyard stones might suffice in an opaque or translucent container. Set the bulbs with the flat side down in a single layer on the stones. In an open bowl you may add a bit more stone around them for stability until they root.
3. Just add water
Add water to the container until the base of the bulb is under water by about a half an inch. (Don't submerge the entire bulb; it needs oxygen from the air). White roots will grow down from the base of the bulb into the rocks, and green grasslike leaves will soon extend a foot or so above. A sunny or bright but cool windowsill is a good site for your paperwhites to develop. Expect blooms in roughly three weeks from "planting."
Assemble your own paperwhites kit for gift giving
When giving forced paperwhite as a gift, I'd recommend one of the following options:
Ready to bloom: Plant the bulbs and begin watering two weeks before giving. The roots should have begun to grow, and leaves and buds will develop quickly for the recipient.
Supply the parts and instructions: You can't mail a container full of water but you can gather the necessary parts and supply instructions for your own personalized kit. Make the gift more lightweight (less costly to mail) by using plastic beads or acrylic chunks as the filler. Here are the instructions to include:
Enjoy fresh flowers on your windowsill! Pour the enclosed stone into the vase and place all the bulbs on it in one layer, with the flat side on the bottom and the pointy end up. Add water until the flat part is submerged by a half inch. Set the vase on a bright cool windowsill or in the brightest indoor spot you have. Leaves will grow first, soon followed by flowers. Add water as needed to just keep the bottom of the bulbs touching the water.
A growing tip from Cornell University
Most paperwhite stems are over a foot tall and can become floppy. Research at Cornell University has shown that using a diluted alcohol solution instead of plain water keeps the stems shorter while still allowing beautiful flowering. To follow Cornell's method, your first watering of the bulbs is done with plain water. After one or two weeks, when roots are growing and green tips begin to develop, pour off the water in the container and replace it with a solution of one part rubbing alcohol with ten parts of water. Use the same mixture for any further watering as the leaves and flowers grow. The alcohol portion of the solution seems to stress the Narcissus just enough to induce shorter top growth.
Can these buibs be saved to plant in the garden?
Paperwhites, being much more sensitive to frost than typical daffodils, are rated for the warmer garden zones 8 to 10. In addition, bulbs forced to bloom on water consume most of their stored energy and cannot replace it. Most growers discard their bloomed-out paperwhites, but if you have a warm garden you may plant them outside. Give them a full sun location and fertile soil, and cross your fingers, and you just may see more paperwhite blooms in future years from those bulbs. After all, trying to save your paperwhites won't cost anything, and if you don't succeed (with rebloom in the garden) you can "try, try again" (with more paperwhites in water!)
Spring is on the windowsill while the snow flies outside!