Brighten Your Winter: Paperwhite Narcissus & other Bulbs

Missoula’s winters can by long, and grey. If you plan now, you can have color through the winter by forcing bulbs. As the long nights and short days of winter approach, I’m ready to enjoy a blossom or two.  Forcing is the process of inducing bulbs to bloom when you want them to, rather than when they would normally flower.

It’s November now, but the ground in my flower garden has yet to freeze hard and it’s not too late for me to dig my own crocus, daffodil, or grape hyacinth for forcing. If I dig them now, place them in my fridge for the twelve weeks of cold they require before blooming, I’ll have flowers in late January or early February. If digging up your own bulbs seems like too much work (or you’ve forgotten what’s growing where under your mulch) purchase some bulbs from a nursery or flower catalog. If you dig or buy bulbs, be sure to wrap them with paper towels, place them in a paper bag and set in your fridge for 12 weeks. If you’d rather not use your fridge space for bulbs, Paperwhite narcissus  do not require a chilling period and are the easy to force.

The most common narcissus color is white, but if white’s not your color, don’t worry; they come in other colors too. The bulbs can be found at Missoula’s nurseries or from a variety of mail order companies. To force any bulb after the chilling period, you’ll need a shallow tray or dish, with sides about two inches tall. I like to use a clear, Pyrex dish that’s 5×7 inches. The clear glass lets me easily see root growth. Fill the bottom of the tray or dish with small pebbles, crushed rock, glass beads, or marbles. Now, add water to cover the pebbles and then secure the bulbs in the pebbles deeply enough so that the basal plate is in contact with the water. Keep the main body of the bulb above the water, this will prevent rot from setting in. (The basal plate is the roundish area on the bottom of the bulb where the root growth forms).

Keep the bulbs in a cool, dark room until you see root growth. Once roots can be seen, move the dish to a sunny location. Each Paperwhite bulb will send up several flower stems bearing many tiny blossoms. I like to fill the entire dish space with bulbs, creating a plentiful flower garden. You can separate tulip and hyacinth bulbs into individual containers or vases too. Nurseries often carry “forcing vases.” They’re simply shaped to hold the basal plate in the water and the main bulb out of the water, keeping the bulb happy.

Experiment and see what you like best. No matter if you force a single bulb or several dozen, you can create a little burst of spring to brighten your house throughout the winter!