Paperwhites

At Christmastime when I was about eleven years old, someone gave my mother a big pot of white narcissus, also known as Paperwhites. My mother was thrilled, as forced bulbs were an uncommon luxury in our small mountain town. She placed the pot in the room we call the Solarium with eight foot windows and filled every winter with ferns and tender geraniums she brought in from the cold. When the Paperwhites bloomed, their scent overpowered everything and to me they smelled just like urine. I could hardly abide being in the Solarium and wondered why on earth a flower like this was special.

Fast forward to the present time and perhaps it’s a case of a mature scent palate, just as a taste palate matures and an adult can enjoy a pungent bleu cheese that sends a child into convulsions. But Paperwhites no longer smell of urine, to me, and their loveliness at Christmas is something I’ve been coveting. A dear friend has a former boss who sends her a tubful of narcissus every year at the Holidays, a galvanized tub about two feet long and a foot and a half wide. She places them on an old wooden table in her kitchen and they bloom till Valentines Day, such a sight to behold.

This year I was determined to have Paperwhites of my own, though my own planting is much more humble than my friend’s tub. I have clear glass bowl I bought at a yard sale, thinking in would be useful in the kitchen. But I’ve discovered the glass is too thin- about the thickness of a wine glass- and I’m always afraid it will break disastrously while filled with food. The bowl has been telling me for a while now, “I’m a florist’s container, silly,” and I’ve known it needed to host Paperwhite narcissus this Holiday season.

I bought two pots of narcissus from a Bodega in Brooklyn the other day. They came filled to the brim with bulbs and potting soil, and wrapped in festive but ugly cellophane. The set up had to go:

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I separated the bulbs from the soil (which of course I saved to reuse) and gave them a good rinsing in a colander:

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Then I got some gravel from a pathway in a corner of our garden, gave it a good rinse too, and made sure the clear glass bowl was sparkly clean:

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I first placed a shallow base of gravel in the bowl, then arranged the bulbs as best I could for variation of height, their roots splayed across the gravel. I gently topped the roots with more gravel and filled in spaces so the bulbs were not touching each other. Then I added a little water to the bottom of the bowl.

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Some of the fronds were growing a little sideways in search of light, but I figured they would straighten on their own, and indeed they have. Two days after planting the bulbs are stock-straight and reaching for the sky. They are not yet in bloom but the tops are really starting to bulge and I can’t wait for the moment.

One thing I wasn’t careful enough about (but also wasn’t willing to re-do to solve) was ensure the roots were completely hidden by the gravel. But I figure if I keep the water level low in the bowl, the roots will seek it and grow downward. Of course, this wouldn’t matter if the bulbs were planted in something other than a clear glass bowl, but I’m happy my bowl has found a better purpose than a food container.

Here’s another glass container filled with beautiful Paperwhites, and a very lovely blog: katy elliott home, art, food.