Wouldn't some bright, sweetly scented blossoms perk up your house this winter? The paperwhite narcissus, a relative of daffodils and jonquils, is easy to grow indoors and produces small, fragrant flowers on 12- to 18-inch stalks. Most paperwhites have pure white blooms, but yellow varieties are also available.
The most common way to grow paperwhites is to force them to bloom in pots indoors. This is especially popular for decorating at Christmastime. Fill a shallow bowl or other container with crushed rocks or pebbles, then push your paperwhite bulbs down into the stones so they stay in an upright position. Add water so it just reaches the bottom of the bulbs.
After planting, keep the bulbs in a cool, dark room for several weeks until the roots take hold and shoots sprout from the bulbs. Then place the containers in a sunny location. In 4 to 6 weeks, you'll see tiny blossoms on the flower stems. Paperwhites have a significant advantage over most other forcing bulbs in that they do not need an 8- to 16-week cold-temperature treatment. Because it's so fast and easy, forcing paperwhites is an excellent project for beginning gardeners.
Unlike their daffodil relatives, paperwhites won't tolerate freezing temperatures, but they can be planted outdoors where winters are mild. Plant them in the fall as you would other spring-flowering bulbs. They look especially attractive in groups planted in containers or the garden.
To prevent your paperwhites from getting tall and floppy, give them a good stiff drink. Paperwhite bulbs grown in water with a 5% concentration of alcohol bloom beautifully on stems 1/3 shorter than paperwhites grown in unspiked water. Most liquors are about 40% alcohol, so that works out to about 1 part alcoholic beverage to 7 parts water.