Narcissus papyraceus originates from the southern Mediterranean and is the botanical name for paperwhite narcissus which have white, single or double flowers. ’Tazetta ’means small cup in Italian, and is descriptive of the flowers of a closely related narcissus that has bi-colored flowers with the corona (cup) being differently colored to the petals. Both bear several flowers per stem and are strongly fragrant. Unlike most bulbs, they do not require chilling to force them into bloom, and therefore are a popular bulb to grow for the winter holidays.
If planted in mid-October you can have them blooming in time for Thanksgiving. However, the longer the bulbs are stored, the quicker they will bloom once planted. Therefore, to have them blooming for Christmas they should be planted in the third week of November, and if they are planted in January they will only take around two weeks before blooming.
Narcissus gets its botanical name from an ancient Greek myth associated with daffodils. Narcissus was a beautiful youth who rejected the love of the nymph Echo and cursed her to only be able to repeat the words of others so that she ultimately faded to just her voice. As a consequence he was cursed by the goddess Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. He would die by drowning trying to reach his reflection, which was to be the ultimate embodiment of both unrequited love and vanity, but this in turn led to his reincarnation as a daffodil bulb. Another Greek myth tells of how Persephone was kidnapped by Hades while picking daffodils in the Elysian fields from whence she was taken to the underworld, and for that reason they were also associated with death and mourning.
Most narcissus naturally bloom in spring, and therefore these days they have happier associations with the return of new life and warmer weather, rather than the significance of ancient times. Paperwhite narcissus are the flower of December as in the wild they do bloom in the winter months, but these days they symbolize good wishes, respect and faithfulness. Accordingly to floriography, receiving narcissus means the recipient is “the only one”.
The name paperwhite narcissus is most associated with the white group of paperwhites. Ziva is a selection developed by an Israeli breeder in the 1970s and is one of the most popular types of paperwhites. It is particularly strongly perfumed, with a musky scent, which is considered too powerful by some. If the strong perfume of Ziva is not to your taste, Inbal offers a milder fragrance. Another common variety is Grand Soleil d’Or, which is yellow with an orange cup, and is also more mildly fragranced.
Paperwhites were one of the earliest traded types of narcissus, arriving in China about 1000 years ago, where they were to become popular due to the fact that they could be brought into bloom to coincide with the Chinese new year at the end of January/early February. Not only are they are symbol of the new year in China, but also in Kurdish culture. For the Chinese they are said to bring good luck and prosperity.
The custom of growing paper whites in bowls of gravel and water originates in China, and takes advantage of the fact that bulbs are self-contained food sources, only requiring water and light to produce blooms. Variations on this include growing bulbs in clear glass containers and using colorful decorative stone or glass. Alternatively, bulbs can be planted in shallow bowls in potting mix and top dressed with stone or moss. Either way, cover just half the bulb with stone or growing medium, which is sufficient to allow their roots to anchor the plant. In order to prevent them from getting stretched and floppy, grow them somewhere cool (under 65ºF) and bright until the buds are about to open, and then move them to where you wish to enjoy them. And if they do get a bit leggy, you can tie some ribbon around them, or use some attractive twigs to act as a support. Once they have finished blooming they can be planted outdoors if you live in USDA Zone 8 or warmer and have hot, dry summers, but for those of us in New England, the climate is not suitable for paperwhites. All is not lost for us in the north east – there are plenty of daffodils that happily grow in Zone 5, including ones such as Cheerfuiness, which are similar to paperwhites in appearance and scent.