Paperwhites falling over

Are your paperwhites falling over? Mine were too. Here are 4 easy ways to keep them upright.

Paperwhites falling over

Why are my paperwhites falling over?

Paperwhites fall over because their roots have not developed strongly enough to hold the entire plant upwards. In nature, the bulbs have years to develop and get a foothold in the surrounding soil. In some water and pebbles on our counter?….not so much.

Paperwhite flowers grow naturally in Mediterranean soil, in areas where the gardening zone is in the neighborhood of Zone 8-11. They’re used to well-draining soil, where they must establish deep roots to get to the water. When you grow Paperwhites in water (without soil), they don’t have much to root into!

Forced paperwhites also tend to grow in warmer temperatures than they would outdoors. The indoor environment doesn’t provide the bright sunlight required for stocky stems and the cooler nighttime temperatures that keep Paperwhites from getting too leggy.

Paperwhites falling over as they flower

Paperwhites usually grow to a height of 16″-18″ tall. Basic legginess prevention is to ensure lots of bright light while the plants grow. As soon as the bulb sprouts up tiny green stems, move the planting container to the brightest window possible. Don’t make them stretch for light. Also, try to rotate the container every few days so they don’t all grow in one direction (and therefore flop over).

Another important factor in preventing leggy growth is not to keep the ambient air temperature too warm. The air around the Paperwhites should be no warmer than about 70°F (21°C). Very warm room temperatures can cause the Paperwhites to grow to over 22″, making the slender stems more vulnerable to falling over under their own weight. On the other hand, Paperwhites grown in cool spots (60°-65°F,16°-18°C) tend to grow stronger, stockier stems.

Lastly, you can look for varieties that have been bred to have strong stems, like Ziva Paperwhites or Inbal Paperwhites.

“..The ethereal beauty of paper-white Narcissus papyraceus will work well in any style of home. The flowers also have the lovelies of scents. The stems often need supporting.”

Gardening Indoors: Creative Designs for Plants in the Home, by Diana Yakeley
Paperwhite staked with twig stick

How to keep paperwhites from falling over

Here are four ways to keep your paperwhites from falling over.

1. Support them with sticks

The tried-and-true method for keeping paperwhites from falling over is to support them with a stick or with multiple sticks. You can use functional floral stakes (or floral wire or other household sticks) or more decorative materials to add to the look of the arrangement.

Try pretty twigs from your yard! Dogwood and other red sticks can be festive for Christmas paperwhites. Branching sticks with a bit of lichen or moss can also be lovely. The picture above uses a twig from a mulberry bush with a bit of thin jute twine (close up below).

Close up of stick staking up paperwhite stem

“Your plants may need support as they grow. Canes and stakes are strong and practical but don’t always look good. So, collect interesting branches on walks (sometimes with the added bonus of lichen) and use these. Birch twigs pushed into the potting compost (soil mix) in a container both support fragile stems and enhance a composition.”

Gardening Indoors: Creative Designs for Plants in the Home, by Diana Yakeley
Paperwhites held up with white ribbon

2. Support them with a ribbon

Put a bow on it! Tie a ribbon around the stems to keep them together and supported. Red, gold, and white ribbon are lovely, as are more natural options like burlap or raffia.

You’ll usually have to tie the ribbon 2/3 of the way up the stems to keep them from flopping. The ribbon is a lovely way to prevent paperwhites from falling over as it adds to the look without much bother.

Planting paperwhites in a tall vase to keep them from falling over

3. Support them with a tall straight-sided vase

Instead of growing the paperwhites in a shallow dish, choose a taller clear glass vase with straight sides. Then tie the ribbon around the vase and let the glass vase hold in the bottom portion of the stems to support the flowers. Or skip the ribbon and simply let the flowers speak for themselves!

Not into planting the bulbs in a clear vase? Not into ribbons either? I totally get it. Consider planting the bulbs just a few inches deep in a solid traditional metal flower pot.

Paperwhites falling over
Full-grown potted paperwhites at a big box store falling over on the display rack

4. Stunt their growth with booze

Yup, horticulturalists at Cornell have successfully stunted paperwhites by watering them with dilute solutions of alcohol. The shorter stunted stems don’t flop over. The basic gist is that once the green shoots have grown an inch or two, you start watering the paperwhites with a dilute alcohol solution. You can use rubbing alcohol or distilled spirits to make a solution of ~5% alcohol.

Plant the bulbs with plain clean water. Once the green stem is 1″-2″ tall (usually after 1-2 weeks), empty out the plain water and replace it with a dilute alcohol solution. This is easiest if the Paperwhites are planted in water alone or in pebbles.

Make the dilute alcohol solution with rubbing alcohol or clear liquor spirits (such as vodka or gin). The solution should be approximately 5% alcohol. If using a 40%-alcohol distilled spirit, use 1 part of the spirit with seven parts water. To make 2 cups of solution, mix 1 ¾ cups of water with ¼ cup of 40% liquor. Do not use sugar-containing alcohols like beer or wine, and do not exceed 10% alcohol in the solution.

“The result will be a plant that is 1/3 shorter, but with flowers just as large, fragrant, and long-lasting as usual. But, the plant will be nicely proportioned and won’t need support stakes, wires, or other gizmos to keep it upright. You will see results within just a few days.”

Pickling your Paperwhites: Using Alcohol to Reduce Growth of Paperwhite Narcissus, by William B. Miller, Professor of Horticulture, Director of the Flowerbulb Research Program, Cornell University
Paperwhite flowers at christmas
Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a quintessential Canadian gardener. An engineer by trade, she tends to an ever-expanding collection of plants. In her world, laughter blooms as freely as her flowers, and every plant is raised with a dash of Canadian grit.

Mary Jane is a certified Master Gardener and also holds a Permaculture Design Certificate. She's also a proud mom of three, teaching her little sprouts the crucial difference between a garden friend and foe.

When she's not playing in the dirt, Mary Jane revels in her love for Taylor Swift, Gilmore Girls, ice hockey, and the surprisingly soothing sounds of bluegrass covers of classic hip-hop songs. She invites you to join her garden party, a place where you can share in the joy of growing and where every day is a new opportunity to find the perfect spot for yet another plant.

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