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Growing paperwhites in water

To grow Paperwhites in water, plant the bulbs in a vase with some pebbles or use a special bulb vase to hold the bulb over top of the water surface. Paperwhites grown in water tend to make elegant holiday centerpieces or windowsill displays. Some gardeners use a dilute alcohol solution to water the bulbs after sprouting to shorten the mature height of the plants.

Paperwhite growing in water

The basics of growing paperwhites in water

Paperwhites are easy to grow in water. These low-maintenance bulbs are happy to grow without any potting soil. Paperwhite flowers do not need added fertilizer or other inputs to bloom indoors as winter houseplants. Planting the bulbs in water is one of the most popular ways to force Paperwhites indoors.

There are two main methods of growing Paperwhites in water. They can be sprouted in a shallow dish planted with pebbles, or they can be sprouted in water alone using a bulb vase. Whatever the method, the bottom of the bulb itself should be positioned just above the surface of the water so that the roots can grow downwards into the water reservoir without the bottom of the bulb sitting continuously in water, as this can cause bulb rot.

Paperwhites in water

It generally takes 4-6 weeks for Paperwhites grown in water to bloom. Bulbs that have sat dormant for a longer period tend to bloom more quickly. Bulbs planted in late October may take 6-8 weeks to bloom, while Paperwhites planted around Thanksgiving may only take four weeks. Paperwhite bulbs planted in January-February can take as little as 2-3 weeks to bloom.

Paperwhite bulbs are generally discarded after they have bloomed in water. The indoor forcing process does not provide the mineral nutrients and bright outdoor sunlight required for the flower bulb to create blooms for the following years. In Zones 8-11, the bulbs can be planted outdoors, but they likely will not bloom for at least two years after being grown indoors in water.

Paperwhites in water on a bed of pebbles
Use pebbles to elevate the bulbs over the water surface.

How to grow Paperwhites in water with rocks

Paperwhite flowers are often planted in pebbles. For this method, you’ll need a growing container that’s about 4″ deep. Shallow glass vases work well, as do tray-like bowls. Deeper containers can also work, especially if you’d like to add lots of pebbles or would like the bulbs to grow up inside the contained space of a tall glass vase. Whatever the depth, the container should not have drainage holes, as there will be standing water inside the vase.

Planting a paperwhite in water with pebbles

Planting Paperwhites with rocks & water

Add a layer of pebbles to the bottom of the vase, about 1″-2″ deep (or deeper in tall vases). Pea gravel, decorative gravel, glass marbles, or even glass beads can be used. Place the Paperwhite bulbs on top of the pebble bed with the pointed end facing upwards. Bulbs planted in this manner can be placed very closely together (but not touching if possible). 4 Paperwhite bulbs tend to fit nicely in a 6″ wide pot. If the bulbs are wobbly, add more pebbles around the sides to hold them upright. Leave the tops of the bulbs exposed.

Add clean, fresh water to the vase so that the water is just touching the bottom of the Paperwhite bulbs. Water should not be more than 1/3 of the way up the bulb (at most). Putting too much water in the vase often leads to bulb rot.

Pebbles for growing a paperwhite bulb without soil
A 2′ layer of rocks or pebbles is a nice depth.

Caring for Paperwhites growing in pebbles with water

Check the bulbs each day to watch for sprouts, watch for roots, and observe water levels. Add more water if required to just touch the very bottom of the bulbs. Drain and change the water 1-2 times per week to keep it fresh. As roots develop, decrease the water level so the bulb does not touch the water. Only the roots should hang down into the water once they grow downwards.

Once the green stems are 1″-2″ tall, you may wish to switch out the plain water with a dilute alcohol solution to stunt the growth so the plant is about 12″ tall instead of 16″-18″ tall at maturity. This can help to develop short, stocky stems that make the Paperwhites less likely to fall over.

Use rubbing alcohol or clear liquor spirits (vodka or gin) to make a ~5% alcohol solution. If using a 40%-alcohol distilled spirit, use 1 part of the spirit to 7 parts water. For a total of 2 cups of solution, mix 1 ¾ cups of water with ¼ cup of 40% liquor. Do not use sugar-containing alcohol like beer or wine. Do not exceed 10% alcohol in the solution.

When roots and green sprouts start to become visible, move the planted Paperwhites to a bright area. The plants can stay in this spot until they are done flowering or can be moved out of direct sunlight once they start to bloom to help the flowers last a bit longer on the plant.

Bulb sprouting in bulb vase
Bulb vases sized for hyacinths, daffodils, or tulips tend to work well for growing paperwhites in water.

How to grow Paperwhites in water alone

Paperwhite bulbs can be grown in water alone for an elegant wintertime display. These water-grown bulbs are typically quite beautiful when planted as a single bulb in a vase or in a small group of 3-4 bulbs in a larger bulb dish.

Planting Paperwhites in water

The most important aspect of planting Paperwhites in water is to choose an adequate bulb vase. These vases have an hourglass shape that holds the bulb above the water’s surface. This shape allows the roots to access water without having the bulb itself sit in water (which often causes bulb rot).

Start by soaking the Paperwhite bulb in clean water for about an hour. Drain and rinse off the bulb before drying it on a cloth. Fill the glass vase with clean, fresh water so that the water level is just below the narrowest point in the middle of the vase. Place the bulb into the bulb vase. The bottom of the bulb should just touch the surface of the water.

Paperwhite growing in water glass
If you can’t find a bulb vase, try an old glass from the thrift store. Look for something with an hourglass-type shape that will hold the bulb up above the water reservoir.

Caring for Paperwhites in water

Change the water in the vase every ~3 days. Once roots are visible, do not let the bottom of the bulb touch the water surface. Only the roots should hang down into the water reservoir below the bulb.

As with pebble-grown Paperwhites, growth can be stunted with a dilute alcohol solution. Starting when stems are 1″-2″ tall, switch out the plain water with a ~5% alcohol solution (see the previous section for details).

Paperwhite plant out of the water showing roots
Paperwhite plant out of the water showing the roots
Paperwhite in water - bulb sprouting with no soil
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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