My People Love Paperwhites -- Here's Why

It's February now, thank goodness! That means spring flowers are right around the corner! I love the changing of the seasons, especially when the weather is improving, but it's also a challenge to switch gears. And like anyone, I forget some of what happened just a few months ago.

But here's something I won't forget: PAPERWHITES. Before I move on to spring flowers, I wanted to reflect on the sweet smelling winter phenom that transformed my farmers market stand this winter.

 Paperwhites are easy to force indoors, but they'll only bloom for one year. You can also grow paperwhites outside, and the odds of multiple years of bloom are much better since the bulbs can draw nutrients from the soil. However, they are not cold hardy.

Paperwhites are easy to force indoors, but they'll only bloom for one year. You can also grow paperwhites outside, and the odds of multiple years of bloom are much better since the bulbs can draw nutrients from the soil. However, they are not cold hardy.

Audience is important on a blog, and since this one is only a month old, I'm not totally sure who's reading yet. So holler at me in the comments section and let me know who you are. In the meantime, here's why I think this blog will be interesting to you.

If you're a client, flower lover, gardener or other non-farmer, then here's some information about how you can grow flowers indoors when nothing is growing outside. If your a flower farmer, then consider adding paperwhites to your operation if you don't already work with them.

So what are paperwhites? They're in the narcissus family (think daffodils), and they're unique because they don't require chilling. Most bulbs, including hyacinths, spring daffodils and tulips, need extended cold temperatures to produce a bloom. Not paperwhites. Stick them in a bright, draughty window, and they'll bloom as the temperature drops outdoors and the days shorten.

Paperwhites thrive on water alone. They don't need soil. I like to watch the roots grow, so I set them in a clear glass vase atop marbles, glass beads, rocks or even gravel. It's so easy. I tell my farmers market customers: Wash a handful of gravel from the driveway and stick it in a drinking glass. Not the prettiest way to pot a paperwhite, necessarily, but the point is you don't need to go out and buy anything to get them to grow. 

  How I Start Paperwhites : First, I root the bulbs. I place them in a small baking dish and add about half an inch of water. Rooting is the only time during the growing process that I let water touch the bulbs.   When I have about half an inch of roots, I transfer the bulbs to a clear glass container full of glass or clay beads. (You can use clean rocks or gravel from your driveway. Just give it a good scrub and a rinse in bleach or vinegar.) I add water to the container until the roots are touching it. I refill to that level every few days. I do not let the water touch the bulbs.  I keep the bulbs in a bright, cool place. We have a sunroom with three glass walls. It's pretty draughty, so it's good for paperwhites. Buds form within two weeks, and flowers bloom within 6 weeks, generally speaking.

How I Start Paperwhites: First, I root the bulbs. I place them in a small baking dish and add about half an inch of water. Rooting is the only time during the growing process that I let water touch the bulbs. 

When I have about half an inch of roots, I transfer the bulbs to a clear glass container full of glass or clay beads. (You can use clean rocks or gravel from your driveway. Just give it a good scrub and a rinse in bleach or vinegar.) I add water to the container until the roots are touching it. I refill to that level every few days. I do not let the water touch the bulbs.

I keep the bulbs in a bright, cool place. We have a sunroom with three glass walls. It's pretty draughty, so it's good for paperwhites. Buds form within two weeks, and flowers bloom within 6 weeks, generally speaking.

The most annoying thing about paperwhites is their floppiness. The stems tumble outward when they get too tall. I actually don't mind this wild look, but it's not for everyone. There are a couple of ways to keep your paperwhites in line. You can pot them several inches below the rim of the container, or you can tie the stems together with a ribbon

Dave Dowling, East Coast Godfather of the bulb industry, tells me to keep them in the coolest place in my house, near a poorly insulated window or door. My house is 110 years old, so we have plenty of spots like this!

I order paperwhites from Ednie (aka Dave), but if you don't have a wholesale id, they're not hard to find. (I've got 'em!). Ziva is one of the most popular varieties, but it seems like there are shortages in Israel (where they're propagated) every year. This year, I wound up with Nazareth, which was lovely. I'll probably go for Ziva again next year (if I can get it), but there are lots of intriguing shapes about. I'd like to try some of the double varieties.

So farmers: Why should you try paperwhites? Because people buy them. Here are the quick takeaways from my experience:

  • Sell bulbs, and display them well. Paperwhite bulbs are eyecandy. The best way to merchandise them is by creating a cascading display. Make it look like they're spilling out of something -- an urn or a box, whatever. Don't merely put them in a bowl. It's like an on/off switch. Spilling out, people buy; neatly sitting in a bowl, people ignore them. Magic!
  • Signage is key. Here's another tip from Dave. Your sign should say: "Indoor bulbs! Watch them grow!" You need the word indoor because most people don't get the idea that they go inside. They will ask you, "Really, indoor?" if they're not familiar with paperwhites, even with the sign. And watch them grow promises entertainment, which is cool. Sometimes I say, "Better than TV." Cute, right?
  • Use clear containers and grow in water. Watching the white roots weave among rocks is half the fun. I sold potted paperwhites through multiple outlets this year, and the ones with exposed roots flew off the shelves. Paperwhites in soil -- not so much.
  • Offer free smells. People like to see and smell the final result. (But beware: some people think they stink.)
  • Figure out your containers. You must buy your containers wholesale (or used) if you want to make money on potted plants, and you must figure out your margins. Otherwise you'll lose your shirt. I cracked the code on paperwhites, but amaryllis are much harder. Still working on a vessel that meets my quality standards without ratcheting up the price.
  • Price competitively. I could have sold paperwhites for more. But even with shipping factored in, my markup was about 100 percent. And my price was way lower than retailers. So I could have priced them higher, but why?
  • Sell cuts, but not that many. I sold some nice cut paperwhites to my restaurant clients, but the production cost per square foot isn't great on these delicate flowers. It's worth trying -- and I'll probably try again next year since my bulbs arrived late this year, and I got off to an awkward start -- but it's not scalable unless you have a lot of greenhouse space that would otherwise go unused. I don't have that.

Have you ever had an aha! moment with a product? I definitely had that feeling with paperwhites. I'd love to hear about your discoveries.

Also, I love amaryllis, and I sold and grew more than 100 this year, but I don't feel quite as proficient in that market yet. Are you a badass amaryllis slinger? Have you figured out the pots and the higher price point? What's your secret? I'd love to learn more!

 One of my markets stands from this holiday season. Note my prominent sign: "Indoor Bulbs! Watch them Grow!" And my cascading display that makes people want to touch bulbs.

One of my markets stands from this holiday season. Note my prominent sign: "Indoor Bulbs! Watch them Grow!" And my cascading display that makes people want to touch bulbs.