December 8, 2017

Old and New Holiday Plant Memories

Plant geeks and new gardeners enjoy the simple joys of forcing paperwhites - it would. be a sad winter season if I ever skipped planting a few dozen.

As the winter holidays creep up on us, many are thinking about Holiday plants. While it's nice to buy                        pre-grown plants, raising something from a bulb is even more fun. Amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus are classic standbys for the season, but with three weeks until Christmas, this is the last weekend one can plant bulbs of paperwhites if you want blooms by Christmas Eve. I am fine with blooms anytime before New Year's Day.

Paperwhite narcissus (and amaryllis) bulbs are some of the first plants many of us began growing, they make terrific gifts for children who are showing a slight interest in gardening, as their fool-proof and often spectacular display is easy to achieve and will reinforce a love for the magic of gardening.

Paperwhite narcissus are virtually foolproof. We all probably have a personal memory of our first paperwhite adventure, mine began in the late 1960's when as a kid I would go shopping with my parents to a local landmark store named Spag's, once located in Shrewsbury, MA.

I found this 'Spagtacular' watercolor of Spag's on the site of a local artist (a neighbor, really just a few a streets away from me!). Michael Wackell, Sr. suffers from Parkinson's Disease diagnosed in 2012 yet he is able to paint these amazing watercolors After chatting with his daughter at  Southpaw Watercolors. I was so impressed with his work I just had to share some of it here. This piece really captured the essence of the store in the 1970's  - check out that car! I nice gift this season might include a donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation which is dedicated to finding a cure.

'No bags at Spag's'  was a familiar tag-line to many residents in central New England, for the store was packed with many odd rituals. A family run business, Spag's himself wore his trademark cowboy hat which was featured on the outside of the store in a large illuminated sign. Customers would enter through a revolving steel - pipe door, find a box and then follow a standard path through a maze (no one could deviate from the flow, much like Ikea, which snaked through the store.

Spag's, a local store near me on bnusy route 9 in Shrewsbury, MA is gone now, but many residents have fond memories of buying bulbs and Holiday gifts there. This image is from the 1950's.

Spags carried most everything and anything, from fishing equipment to sporting goods, furniture to carpets, cans of pistachios (stacked to the ceiling) to board games and toys. Boxes of clothespins, bins of shampoo bottles and of course, flower bulbs. The store is gone now and a new Whole Foods is opening this January, but Whole Foods was nice enough to pay homage to this local landmark with a special sign outside of their new, modern building. A nice touch.

For years, Spags was THE place to buy Dutch bulbs (paperwhites were only .19 cents!), and they would carry all of the color forms, all of which are botanically known as tazetta types, one of the 13 classes of narcissus, often multi-flowers, fragrant flowers. Speaking of fragrance, the tazetta class has some of the most fragrant narcissus known in the garden, but perhaps to some, a few of the stinkiest. I happen to love the scent of the paperwhite narcissus, but I can sympathize with those who feel that they smell like cat pee.

Easy enough to grow, if you find yourself with some paperwhite bulbs this winter, I thought that I would share how I grow mine. I use soil and rocks, but one can surely use just rocks. I feel that professional potting soil offers better root growth (roots need oxygen, too) and the medium feels more natural.I can topdress the pots with gravel, and the soil allows me to add birch, fothergilla or stewartia branches which help keep the stems erect. One shouldn't stake paperwhites, for there is no elegant way.

If you are trying the alcohol method to restrict the height of the foliage and stems (apparently it works according to a study at Cornell), the all-gravel method will be a better choice for you. Do know that this will slow down the growth rate a bit, so bulbs treated in such a way maybe a week or two later in booming.

I pot up large pots and bowls, this year planted about 15 bulbs in a new Guy Wolff salad mixing bowl, but I also pot single bulbs in plastic pots which I can set between the potted plants in my plant window displays.

I used to believe that Paperwhite narcissus was relatively new on the scene, assuming that forcing them was a 20th century invention, but you might be surprised to discover that the Chinese raised the bi-colored tazetta known as the Chinese Sacred Lily as long ago as the year 700 AD, and the paperwhite itself shortly after that. Native to the Middle East, wild populations of Narcissus papyraceus have been some of the earliest bulbs grown by humans, while the selections known sometimes as Narcissis Polyanthus, N. Grandilora or even even N. paperwhite have appeared in bulb importer catalogs as long ago as 1790. They have been grown in the US as long ago as the early 19th century. These are not new novelties.

Potted paperwhite narcissus planted in soil and then top-dressed with sheet moss on a bench in my greenhouse. These will root in the cool environment and grow short and stocky stems with the bright light. They will be brought into the house near Christmas Even to brighten window sills and add Holiday cheer to the rooms.

While the genus Narcissus continues to be a muddled group (taxonomically speaking), most agree on where the paperwhite come from. The American Daffodil Society whose website admits that while there is there is disagreement, about the total number of species within Narcissus (somewhere between 40 and 200)  there are other organizations such as the venerable  Pacific Bulb Society who admit that there may be between 26 to 80 species. Factor in that there are currently more than 25,000 named cultivars and hybrids out there,  things can get quite confusing.
Paperwhites are

I like to research a bit with common plants, and given the topic of paperwhites, I have been curious about where they actually come from, or where they grow wild. Narcissus papyraceus is the accepted and preferred botanical name, yet few of us would use it unless we had some bulbs or seed from a wild population - still,  it's helpful to know names are not proper anymore.

N. tazetta var. papyraceus
N. tazetta subsp. papyraceus
N. linnaeanus subsp. papyraceus,

Each of these is now taxonomically incorrect. Use this post to correct friends and family at a Holiday party. They will be impressed, and then, move on.

You are welcome.

Paperwhite fragrance isn't for everyone, but it is a scent which I would miss every winter.

This week I bought some paperwhite bulbs from Home Depot, and the package had "Narcissus grandiflora" on the front, along with 'Ziva'.

Sadly this is a 19th century name which hasn't been used for over 100 years, but not unusual in a world where a Google search often acts as a copywriters first choice.

Narcissus collectors (yes, there are some) know that there are obscure subspecies associated within the N. papyraceus clan, all are wild populations of a sort-of paperwhite narcissus. These include

N. papyraceus ssp. pachybolbus
N. papyraceus ssp. panizzianus
N. papyraceus ssp.  papyraceus
N. papyraceus polyanthos

Retired forever are the 19th century names for the Paperwhite, this includes Polyanthus Narcissus, Grandiflora Narcissus and Narcissus Paperwhite.

don't you love the term 'Gian Odorous' narcissus? 19th-century bulb catalogs often featured many different types and selections of easy-to-force bulbs like paperwhites. They are hardly new to us.

We in the 21st century have the luxury of choosing from a dozen or so named crosses and selections - clones of choice varieties, some tall, some ridiculously fragratm, some stinky, and some with little to no scent if you are weird.

These include the Dutch propagated selections we most commonly see today like:
N. papyraceus 'Ziva' and
N. papyraceus 'Inbal',
and a long list of other names I don't feel like looking up here - if a variety with a name appears in a bulb catalog today, it is undoubtedly a choice one, just buy based upon your taste.

As for the related species and selections which can be grown (forced-in-gravel) are a few other types, including all yellow, ivory and some bicolored forms  like 'Chinese Sacred Lily', not really a lily of course, but essentially a tazetta-group narcissus which can be forced indoors without vernalization (a cold period).
I've seen some bloggers and writers refer to these as 'tropical' narcissus, but they are simply mediterranean types which are tender. Some of these have a longer cultural tail with humans, especially in Asia. These include some forms here, which bloom a little later in the winter season and take longer to get going in a pot. All sweetly fragrant, they include:

N. tazetta "Grand Soleil d'Or'
N. tazetta "Flore Plenus"
N. tazetta "Chinese Sacred Lily"
N. tasetta "odoratus"

There are plenty of other N. tazetta subspecies which are cold hardy and good choices for northern gardeners outdoors, but I'll spare you. They are easy to track down, just look for bulbs classified as tazetta types.

Every plant has roots to a wild population.   N. papyraceus comes from Greece and north Africa (Morocco) and places like Croatia. Populations have naturalized in Italy, Australia and even in the southern US.

I feel like a slug not posting for an entire month now, perhaps the longest absence in the history of this blog but my book is taking priority along with the work on our kitchen remodel (almost done!!!). Thanks for being patient. It's a busy time of year for many of us, so maybe I am being kind in giving you less to read!


  1. Anonymous7:08 PM

    Paperwhites, planted in pebbles and water, are a key element in marking the lunar new year in Chinese culture. Thank you for posting at such a busy time - great to see you back.

  2. Anonymous11:37 AM

    Missed reading your wonderful posts. Paperwhites are hardy for me, and I have some blooming now I received in a 1990's Horticulture class. Still, I love to pot them, and I don't mind the smell either.

  3. Anonymous5:41 PM

    dear matt
    thank you for categorizing the paperwhite group; they tend to be thought of as simply "paperwhites," as if they had no botanical provenance.
    i couldn't help but be touched by your Spag's memories. yup, all those cartons--no bags at Spag's!
    all best,
    ~ 02568

  4. Matt, this was such a fun post. Every little town had their Spag's (Spartan's here) I'm sure. Those local stores which were crazily individualistic. I love the artwork. I also force a bunch of the N. tazetta, paperwhites, but can't stand 'Ziva.' I love the other scents. Mine are all about four inches high now and will bloom sometime in January. We went to NYC for a few days, and I didn't ask anyone to water my greenhouse so they slowed down. What would we do without indoor plants to coax into bloom. I would hate winter otherwise. Merry Christmas, my fellow-toffee-loving friend.~~Dee


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