How to Pickle Your Paperwhites So They Last Longer

Are you forcing paperwhite bulbs this season? Pickling your bulbs is a great way to keep your plants looking their best and standing straight and tall throughout their blooming time. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss will walk you through the process of pickling your paperwhites.

A cluster of crisp white paperwhite blooms with orange centers flower atop sturdy green stems.


Several types of bulbs can be forced to grow indoors, with some of the more popular types including amaryllis, hyacinth, and paperwhites. Today, as we head into the holiday season, let’s talk about paperwhites, how to force them, and how to pickle your paperwhites to make them last longer.

Paperwhites are a type of daffodil or narcissus. This variety produces small, white flowers best known for their delightful fragrance and ability to grow indoors during winter. Growing these plants in this manner is referred to as forcing the bulbs. It tricks the bulbs into thinking it is time to leave dormancy at a time of year when they typically wouldn’t.

It sounds a bit funny. Pickling isn’t something we typically discuss with plants unless we are referencing the fruits and vegetables that some of them produce. Yet, here we are, discussing this very interesting method of prolonging the life of your indoor paperwhite plants. 

A common problem with paperwhites is that they grow very rapidly indoors, and the stems can grow very tall and thin. When this happens, the stems flop over, which doesn’t look very nice. 

Pickling your bulbs has an interesting effect. It prolongs their life, but not necessarily in the way that they live longer. Instead, this process stunts the plant’s green growth, resulting in shorter, thicker, stronger stems that can support larger blooms. 

Forcing paperwhite bulbs is a simple process and requires very little maintenance. A few tricks can help your plants along in this process. Let’s talk about how to force paperwhites and prolong their life by pickling them.

Step One: Choose Your Bulbs

Top view of a set of Paperwhite bulbs with small green growth popped up at the top of the bulbs. Paperwhite bulbs are round in shape, white in color, and wrapped in brown husk.
Select healthy bulbs from reputable sources for optimal growth.

There are many varieties of paperwhite to choose from, with the Ziva variety being the most common and popular. This makes them easier to obtain. However, the internet has made it simpler to seek out and purchase less common types. 

When purchasing your bulbs, pay attention to the source. Obtain your bulbs from a reputable vendor. You don’t want to end up with dried-out bulbs that haven’t been stored properly, so check out your retailer’s reputation if you purchase online.

If you are purchasing your bulbs from a local source, you have the luxury of seeing the bulbs you are purchasing and can select healthy bulbs. Healthy bulbs are plump and smooth and should look like they are about to sprout if they haven’t done so already. 

Plan to group your bulbs to form a healthy and robust-sized clump of plants that produces plenty of flowers. Five to eight bulbs should give you a beautiful grouping and suit most spaces if you want to move them around to enjoy in different rooms. 

The second thing to consider is the variety, specifically the scent of each variety. Paperwhites often come in white, but there are some yellow varieties, such as ‘Grand Soleil d’Or,’ with a pleasing, fruity fragrance. The most popular variety, ‘Ziva,’ is pure white and highly fragrant, smelling sweet and musky. 

Step Two: Decide on a Planting Method

Forcing paperwhite narcissus bulb flowers in water and rocks. Close-up of a vase of water containing a paperwhite bulb. The roots of the bulb touch the water. Nearby on the table there is a round glass vase with low walls, filled with stones and water. There are many bulbs with sprouted green stems and leaves in a glass vase with pebbles.
Paperwhites grow well without soil, thriving in water with proper support for upright positioning.

Paperwhites can be grown in soil, but they are rather picky about their potting soil, and it is easier to grow them without soil at all. When you plant them in soil, this pickling process is much less effective, so we will discuss forcing your bulbs into clean water for this purpose. 

If you decide to plant your paperwhite bulbs in the soil, ensure they have excellent drainage. These plants prefer soil with coarse particles, like sand or gravel, mixed in to improve drainage. 

If you go with the water planting method, choosing a container is the next decision; in this case, zero drainage is the rule. You can use a bulb vase, a shallow bowl, or any other watertight receptacle. Keep in mind the number of bulbs you are planting when selecting a container. 

Using the water method, you may have some difficulty with bulbs falling over and not staying upright. It is perfectly fine to sink some small pebbles or river rocks in the water and nestle your bulbs into them for support. 

Step Three: Gather Your Materials

Close-up of a table with prepared items for planting spring flowering bulbs to encourage early flowering indoors. On the table there are several bulbs with roots and sprouted green shoots, a glass bowl with pebbles and water.
Gather all necessary items beforehand for the paperwhite planting process to avoid interruptions.

Collect all the necessary supplies for the pickling paperwhite process ahead of time so you’re not running around searching for them once you’ve started. I am guilty of being impatient and jumping into things only to find I must run to the store for something in the middle of the project. I always feel better getting started on a project when I have all the necessary items. 

For this process, you will need the following items:

  1. Paperwhite bulbs (5-8 is a good number, more if you are filling a very large container.)
  2. Glass or another watertight container
  3. Clean water
  4. Alcohol – white liquor such as vodka, gin, or isopropyl alcohol will work as well.

Step Four: Assemble Your Bulb Arrangement

Close-up of paperwhite narcissus bulb in a vase with water. The bulb is medium-sized, round in shape, with a brown husk. The roots of the bulb are long and touch the water.
Prevent bulb rot by ensuring only the roots or the bottom touches water.

It is important that your bulbs do not sit in water, or they will rot. Ideally, only the roots should touch the water, but if your bulbs don’t have any roots yet, allow just the bottom of the bulb to rest on the water. 

This is where the type of container is important and where you will need those pebbles if you have a large-mouthed container. Think of this like creating a pebble tray for humidifying houseplants, but your paperwhites will sit directly on the stones rather than in a separate container.

Using a bud vase works very well for forcing bulbs. Choosing one with a wide opening and narrower neck will keep your bulbs up top, suspended above the water. This lets you easily maintain the water level and observe where the roots are in relationship to the liquid. 

Step Five: Add Water

Forcing paperwhite narcissus bulb flowers in water and rocks. Close-up of a shallow blue ceramic vase filled with pebbles and water. Paperwhite bulbs are placed in a bowl. Paperwhite bulbs are round in shape, white in color and have a protective layer of brown husk. Small green shoots grow from the top of each bulb.
Fill the container with water initially, allowing one week for root development.

At this stage, you want to fill your container with plain water. It will take about one week for roots to begin developing. During this time, you should also see some green growth at the top of your bulb. When you have about one to two inches of growth at the top, pour off the water in the container and replace it with your alcohol solution. 

Step Six: Combine and Add Alcohol Solution

Close-up of a large shallow pot of spring-blooming flower bulbs planted indoors for forced flowering. These bulbs have brown husks and several small green shoots on top of each bulb. The pot has a decorative and protective layer of moss.
Maintain a 5% alcohol solution for paperwhites, adjusting ratios based on alcohol concentration.

Here is where things get tricky, or I should say, where your math skills will come in handy. To effectively pickle paperwhites, you must get the ratio of water to alcohol correct, as too much alcohol will definitely kill your bulbs, and then you will not have paperwhites at all. 

The ideal ratio of alcohol to water is about 20:1, which equates to five percent. To get this right, you need to know the concentration of alcohol you are dealing with. Vodka and gin commonly contain about 40% alcohol. A mixture of one part alcohol to seven parts water will yield a solution of about five percent alcohol. 

If you go the route of using isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), you’re likely looking at 70% alcohol content. In this event, you should make a solution of one part alcohol to 10 or 11 parts water

The greater the alcohol concentration, the shorter your plants will be. Anywhere in the range of four to six percent alcohol is a good range. Make sure not to exceed 10%, or you risk killing your young plant. Keeping it under 10% will stunt the plant’s growth, preventing it from flopping over because the stems cannot support the flowers.

Once you have your alcohol solution, pour off the water in your vessel and then add the alcohol solution in its place. You may be tempted to add some alcohol to the existing water. This isn’t a great idea, as the alcohol will tend to stay at the top of the container, and the lower roots won’t absorb it. Pouring off and replacing the water with the alcohol solution ensures that the two liquids combine correctly. 

Why Does It Work?

Close-up of Paperwhite Narcissus flowers blooming from bulbs on a windowsill. The stem produces a cluster of small, star-shaped blossoms with a pristine white color. The flowers feature a central cup surrounded by six petal-like tepals, giving them a classic narcissus look.
Alcohol may cause water stress, reducing stem growth and allowing them to hold up flowers.

Let’s talk about the science behind the method. According to Cornell University’s Horticultural Department, the science is still a bit vague. Although the exact cause is uncertain, the theory is that alcohol causes water stress. It inhibits the roots’ ability to take in water. 

The lack of water is not enough to affect flower size and longevity. Your plants will still bloom, and the flowers will not be affected in size, lifespan, or fragrance. It is, however, enough to reduce the growth of the green portions of the plant: the stems and leaves. 

Final Thoughts

If you’re forcing bulbs this season, learning to pickle paperwhites is a fantastic way to eliminate floppy stems. Pickling your paperwhites will keep the stems upright, resulting in healthier-looking plants for the duration of their blooming period. 

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