Paperwhites for Christmas

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


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 Netto (Andrews)

References and Further Reading

Bazeley, Dawn (2015): Advent Botany 2015: Day 12: Anyone can grow paperwhites but their taxonomy is a different story. Culham Research Group. 12 December 2015. Alastair Culham. University of Reading blogs. Last accessed 15 December 2019.

Christenhusz, Maarten J. M., & Fay, Michael F., & Chase, Mark W. (2017): Plants of the World. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Vascular Plants. Kew. Chicago.

Erice, Aina S. (2016): Say it with narcissi: flowers to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Last accessed 15 December 2019.

Miracle-Gro (2019): Growing Paperwhites: Winter Flowers That Can Grow Indoors. Small Space Gardening. The Scotts Company LLC. Last accessed 15 December 2019.

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