Paperwhite narcissus are the cilantro of the flower world. While some people can’t get enough of their heady fragrance, to others they smell like a cross between dirty socks and cat pee.
Like daffodils, paperwhites are a type of narcissus. But these are tender bulbs, native to frost-free regions of the Mediterranean. Here in the US, paperwhite narcissus are winter hardy only in growing zones 8-11. In colder areas, the bulbs are grown indoors during the winter months. As with amaryllis, paperwhites do not need a chilling period in order to bloom. They also come into flower very quickly — usually within a month after planting.
Why Is the Fragrance of Paperwhites so Polarizing?
Plants produce natural, organic chemicals that give their flowers fragrance. The plant’s goal is to attract pollinators, but in most cases, humans also find these fragrances pleasing.
The naturally-produced biochemical that gives paperwhite narcissus their distinctive fragrance is called indole. Other plants that also produce indole include gardenias, jasmine, tuberose and orange flowers. Not everyone likes the smell of indole – especially in large amounts. It has a sweetness that can both repel and attract us at the same time. The biochemical compound indole is found throughout the natural world: in fecal matter, decaying animals, body odor and even in vegetables such as broccoli and kale.
In low concentrations, indole has a ripe, floral scent and for this reason it is often used in perfumery. Fragrances such as La Vie La Mort, Carnal Flower and even Chanel No.5 rely on indole to heighten their sensual appeal.
Too much of a good thing?
If someone in your household is not a fan of the sweet and musky scent of paperwhites, plant just a couple bulbs at a time for personal-sized bouquets. Put a few inches of stones in the bottom of a canning jar, position one or two bulbs on top and add enough water to almost reach the bottom of the bulbs (learn more about growing paperwhites here: All About Paperwhites).
Some varieties of paperwhites contain a higher level of indole than others. As a rule, those with yellow flowers, such as ‘Grand Soleil D’Or’ and ‘Wintersun’ have a lighter and sweeter fragrance. If you want to give them a try, be aware that these more unusual varieties can be difficult to find, and the bulbs tend to produce smaller flower clusters.
Israel is the world’s largest producer of paperwhite bulbs, and breeders are currently working on new varieties with lower levels of indole. We look forward to having more options in the future!