Indoor Bulbs for Holiday Blooms

Indoor Bulbs for Holiday Blooms

Forcing bulbs indoors is an easy way to bring a little joy to your home this holiday season — especially for gardeners longing for a few blooms to tide them over till spring. But it doesn't take a particularly green thumb to enjoy the beauty of bulbs in your home this winter! Pristine Paperwhites and their flamboyant Amaryllis cousins are staples of holiday centerpieces everywhere, and they make for great housewarming gifts, too. We're here to give you a quick rundown on how and when to pot them up and coax them to flower in your home.

You will typically encounter Amaryllis and Paperwhites in both bulb and potted form in garden centers starting in the late fall. For a quick turnaround on floral presence, pre-potted plants that are already growing and/or flowering provide instant gratification, but potting up your own is a rewarding experience that allows for significantly more control over your own arrangement. If you care to have plants actively blooming in time for a particular date or occasion — like Christmas Day — it's important to plan ahead, as Paperwhites require four to six weeks' lead time from planting before you can expect blooms, and Amaryllis can take six to eight weeks if their bloom stalks have yet to sprout.

Planting Paperwhites "On the Rocks"

1: Select your container. Since they are almost always treated as annuals, Paperwhites are typically planted on top of pebbles, gravel, or other decorative stones where their roots can reach down into water. As such, consider getting creative with your planting medium and choosing a glass container that shows it off! A glass container has the added benefit of allowing you to accurately monitor the water level your bulbs receive, which can also be achieved in a decorative planter with a clear, removable liner like the one pictured above. A low bowl-style container without drainage holes would also work, and in general, shallow is just fine; you don't really need more than 3-4" of vertical space.

2: Fill and arrange. Fill your container with pebbles, leaving about 2" from the top rim — roughly the height of your bulbs — and arrange them to suit your tastes. Be sure to place them upright so their roots are resting at about the same level on the pebbles. (You don't want your bulbs on one side to be drowning while those on the other sit high and dry!) Don't worry if your bulbs have already begun to sprout at an angle; they will right themselves as they grow.

3: Secure your bulbs. Once you are happy with the placement of your Paperwhites, fill around them with just enough pebbles to secure the bulbs in place, being sure to leave their "necks" uncovered. This allows for air flow around the bulbs, which is even more important if you want to place decorative elements like preserved moss around them later.

4: Water your bulbs and keep them cool. Once everything is planted, you can fill your container with just enough water to reach the bottom third or so of your bulbs. It's important that you don't totally submerge them, as they are prone to rot in standing water — another reason to leave the "necks" of your bulbs in plain view. Then, it's just a matter of placing your Paperwhites in a bright spot next to a window and waiting, occasionally adding water to restore that initial level. In a week or so, you should begin to see roots working their way through the pebbles, followed by foliage and stems up top. Keeping your Paperwhites in a cooler room will help them resist the urge to grow too fast and flop over, as will turning the container every few days to keep them from leaning towards the light.

Bonus Tip: As growers, we can let you in on a little secret of the trade: To keep the growth on your Paperwhites more compact, you can give them a bit more to drink than water — namely, liquor! Any clear spirit will do, but you want to aim for a final 5% concentration of alcohol in the water you give your Paperwhites to help prevent any potential for floppage. If you go any higher, you risk over-stressing your plants, but don't worry: We already worked out the math for you in the table below so you can be sure to get it right. The strength of your spirit will determine how many parts water to liquor you will use. For instance, if your liquor is 20% alcohol (40 proof), you would use 3 parts water for every 1 part liquor. You can start watering with this solution as soon as you have started to notice root growth using plain water, and from there on out, you can continue to use your alcohol solution.

Dilution Rates

Strength of Your Spirit Ratio of Water to Liquor to Use
10% (20 Proof) 1 Part Water to 1 Part Liquor
15% (30 Proof) 2 Parts Water to 1 Part Liquor
20% (40 Proof) 3 Parts Water to 1 Part Liquor
25% (50 Proof) 4 Parts Water to 1 Part Liquor
30% (60 Proof) 5 Parts Water to 1 Part Liquor
35% (70 Proof) 6 Parts Water to 1 Part Liquor
40% (80 Proof) 7 Parts Water to 1 Part Liquor

The Amaryllidaceae Connection

Based on their flowers and their fragrance, you may have inferred that Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) are closely related to the cheery golden daffodils that brighten our gardens each spring, but you may not have known that — like Agapanthus, Alliums, and Crinums — they are members of the Amaryllis family, the Amaryllidaceae. As the name would suggest, this also happens to include the many varieties of Amaryllis (Hippeastrum cv.) you will encounter for sale this time of year, boasting flowers in festive hues of red, pink, white, orange, and green.

Like most fall-planted bulbs, both Paperwhites and Amaryllis arrive at garden centers with blooms already set deep inside the bulbs, but unlike bulbs destined to go in the ground outside, these do not require any additional chill period to successfully complete the blooming process. In fact, hailing from warmer climes, they prefer not to get very cold at all! Because of this, they are most frequently enjoyed as one-season annuals, but determined gardeners in warm zones might experiment with planting Paperwhites and Amaryllis in the ground once you have finished enjoying them indoors. (Here in our USDA Zone 8 gardens in Portland, they are only marginally hardy, but some gardeners in our zone and cooler elect to keep Amaryllis going in pots that can be sunken into the ground and lifted in the fall.)

Planting Amaryllis

In general, while it's possible to plant Amaryllis in the same fashion you would plant Paperwhites, the preferred method is to use soil — especially if you want to try your hand at keeping your Amaryllis growing beyond the holiday season. If you choose to plant your Amaryllis in a container with pebbles, be extra vigilant about not over-watering; you only want the water level in your container to be just touching the bottom of your bulb. If you choose to plant your Amaryllis in a pot with soil, though, here's the process:

1: Grab a decorative pot and some potting soil. A sturdy container is best to help prevent your Amaryllis from tipping over once it has reached its full glory, and we recommend a pot with drainage holes for the reasons outlined above. If you do elect a decorative pot that lacks drainage, just know that you will need to be equally as cautious about over-watering as you would when planting in pebbles. Fill the bottom of your pot with a good quality potting soil about 4-5" from the top rim — again, roughly the height of your bulb.

2: Situate your Amaryllis. Place your bulb upright on top of the soil, being sure to spread the roots out beneath it. If your bulb has begun to sprout at a slight angle, it will generally right itself; however, the thicker stems of Amaryllis are less pliable than those of Paperwhites, so if your chosen bulb has a bloom stalk more than a couple of inches long that is growing at a 45° angle or greater, you might consider planting your Amaryllis at an angle to compensate. To situate your bulb, gently push the roots into the soil to begin securing them, and if your bulb has quite a few roots, feel free to dig out a little extra room for them. Then, you can fill around your Amaryllis with soil. As with Paperwhites, when filling your pot, you want to leave the "neck" of your bulb exposed. Some people recommend leaving even more of your bulb uncovered, but the less soil you use, the less secure your plant will be, so take that into consideration.

3: Water and wait. Amaryllis can be slower to wake up than Paperwhites, and a common mistake people make is providing them with too much moisture early on in the process of emerging from dormancy. You only want to give your plant enough water to just dampen the soil, then wait to water again until the top inch of the soil is dry, which may take a while if your Amaryllis is yet to show signs of active growth. Sometimes, the leaves will emerge first, while other times, the bloom stalk will, but both are normal. From there, Amaryllis care is very similar to that of Paperwhites. Give your Amaryllis bright light, and turn it from time to time to prevent it from leaning too far in one direction. You can also stake your Amaryllis with a florist stake and a bit of ribbon, if necessary — especially once the heavy blooms begin to open. Then, you're ready to move it to your table!

Consider getting creative with indoor bulbs this year. We're already excited just imagining the inspiring combined planting of Amaryllis and Paperwhites we know someone is going to put together! Cornell Farm has a great selection of bulbs for forcing indoors, as well as plenty of other gifts and decor to put smiles on faces this holiday season and beyond.