Paperwhites for Christmas

Paperwhites, Narcissus papyraceus, in Kew’s Davies Alpine House. © Karen Andrews

Paperwhites or Paper-white Daffodils are commonly found blooming indoors at Christmas. They have a seasonal advantage over many other bulbs. They require a much shorter period of cold temperature treatment than other bulbs before flowering. They need just 4-6 weeks as opposed to the standard 8-12 weeks. Unfortunately, as we are now well into the Advent period, if you haven’t already given your Paperwhites their cold treatment, it’s already too late. Never mind, there will still be plenty of Paperwhites in shops to fill your home with their delightful fragrance this Christmas.

Onion Family?

It seems incongruous that a flower with such a beautiful scent should belong to the Onion or Amaryllidaceae family. This has been a somewhat unsettled family taxonomically. It evolved around 87 million years ago. Its natural range is the Mediterranean and South West Europe, although it has lured its way into our homes and gardens across the world.

According to Kew’s Plants of the World, Amaryllidaceae now contains 77 genera and around 2,140 species, split into 3 subfamilies:

  • Amaryllidoideae: 62 genera with around 1,000 species
  • Allioideae: 14 genera with 1, 134 species
  • Agapanthoideae: only Agapanthus genus with 7 species.

Greek Myth

The flower’s symbolism gives out some pretty mixed messages. The tragic Greek myth of Narcissus associates the flower with egotism. He was a very attractive young man, who treated others with disdain and contempt. He rejected the nymph Echo who fell in love with him, ultimately reducing her presence and voice to a mere echo. Narcissus then fell in love with his own reflection. Ovid portrayed him as wasting away until death and being replaced by a Narcissus flower at the waterside. It seems that the original myth described a more bloody end for Narcissus at his own hand.

Paperwhites © Karen Netto (Andrews)
Narcissus papyraceus, Paperwhite Daffodils © Karen Andrews


Other, more pleasant, cultural meanings have also become associated with the Daffodil. In Chinese culture, if a Daffodil blooms in your home over the New Year period, it will bring you good luck. The Daffodil is more traditionally associated with rebirth and new beginnings. If we conjure up images of Daffodils in our minds, it makes us think that spring cannot be far away.

© Karen Andrews

References and Further Reading

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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