Plant of the Week
Latin: Narcissus tazetta
I’ve always liked flower bulbs and especially
enjoy forcing them to bloom. One of the easiest bulbs to force is the Paperwhite
Narcissus (Narcissus tazetta). Unlike most daffodils, this species requires
no chilling to flower.
To the daffodil fancier, these bulbs are called the "polyanthus group"
-- literally "many flowers." All tazettas have a number of
blooms at the end of the scape, not just one as seen in the common daffodil.
The cultivars can be divided into three groups; the bi-colors, the doubles and
The name paperwhite narcissus is best used for the white group. Ziva, a selection
developed by an Israeli breeder in the 1970s, is the most common. The bulbs
and foliage are typical for daffodils in general.
Flowers are all white and about the size of quarter, but borne in a cluster
with up to a dozen blossoms. Inside the field of six white petals sets a small
white cup. The name "tazetta" in Italian means "small cup".
All paperwhite narcissus have a strong fragrance, but Ziva’s is particularly
strong. Many consider it too strong, a kind of musky sweetness.
Paperwhite narcissus is the oldest and most widely distributed of the genus.
They originated in the Mediterranean region and adjacent areas of central Asia,
but were an early item of commerce. They arrived in China during the Late Sung
period, about 1,000 years ago, probably introduced by Arab traders. They became
intimately associated with the Chinese New Year celebrations, because they can
be bloomed easily in January.
Our custom of forcing paperwhite narcissus in a bowl of gravel filled with
water is a Chinese custom. The Chinese name for the flower is shuixian, and
translates as "water fairy". But, think of it as an assemblage of
Daoist deities associated with water, not cute Tinker Bell-like fairies of Western
folklore. As a symbol, the flowers are supposed to be the purveyor of great
During the late Victorian period, Chinese art and style seemed quite popular.
During the late 1800s the Dutch, always looking for new categories of bulb crops
as fashions change, began growing the polyantha narcissus in large numbers.
They made many introductions of new hybrids and promoted the idea of forcing
these bulbs indoors in the Chinese fashion to the Victorian ladies of the day.
But, with the opening of WW I, interest in tazettas waned and no new cultivars
Tazettas are commonplace in California where they are often called Chinese
sacred lilies. Most of these early Chinese immigrants were from Fujian Provenance
(on the mainland opposite Taiwan), which also was where the bulbs were produced
for the Chinese New Years festivities.
I usually don’t grow my paperwhites in gravel, but use shallow bulb
pans. To create a nice display, I crowd the bulbs together in the pot, often
even planting the bulbs in two layers, one atop the other. They are very responsive
to temperature, but too-warm temperatures cause them to stretch.
To avoid the stretch problem as much as possible, I pot my bulbs in mid- to
late October and leave them on the patio. If the temperature goes below 28 degrees,
I bring them in. I only bring the pots inside when they are in full bloom, at
which time the stretching problem continues. If I were better organized, I would
set them outside at night to reduce stretch. If they get too top heavy, cut
the stems for cut flowers.
Paperwhites are hardy throughout Arkansas, but because they lack winter dormancy,
the leaves begin to grow in the fall. Cold winter temperatures singe the leaves,
and when they bloom in the spring, the flowers are attractive but the foliage
looks pretty rough.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension News -
January 14, 2005
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.
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