Bulbs for Christmas flowering
Enjoy the intoxicating fragrance of hyacinths and the dramatic blooms of amaryllis (Hippeastrum), 'Paper White' daffodils and other bulbs for Christmas and New Year. These bulbs are readily available and easy to grow in just a few months.
When to plant
To be in flower for Christmas planting must be done ahead of time;
- Hyacinths: The exact timings for hyacinths will vary according to the cultivar. For example, ‘Pink Pearl’ needs 10 weeks of cool conditions followed by 22 days indoors to reach flowering stage (so plant 24 September for Christmas blooms), while ‘Anna Marie’ needs only 8 weeks cool and 18 days inside to bloom (plant 12 October). Low temperatures will delay development so some experimentation may be needed with each cultivar
- Daffodils: Daffodils, such as Narcissus ‘Paper White’, are also planted in September. Their natural flowering period is January or February, but good quality bulbs will flower in 6 to 10 weeks from planting
- Hippeastrum (amaryllis): Plant Hippeastrum in October for flowers at Christmas – they take about 10 weeks from planting to flowering
How to grow bulbs for Christmas
This method is the same for all forced bulbs, apart from the alternative ways mentioned below:
- To have hyacinths in flower for the Christmas period make sure you buy bulbs labelled 'prepared'.
- You may wish to wear gloves when handling the bulbs as hyacinths can cause skin irritation.
- The simplest compost to choose is bulb fibre, especially if the container has no drainage holes. Alternatively, a soil-based or soilless compost can be used, provided it has a good, open texture and is moisture-retentive but free-draining. It is not necessary to use a fertiliser-rich growing medium or to feed the bulbs after planting.
- Wet the fibre or compost first and place a layer in the bottom of the bowl or pot.
- Set the bulbs on the fibre or compost. They can be close together, but not touching each other or the sides of the container.
- Fill around the bulbs with more fibre or compost, leaving about 1cm (½in) between the compost surface and the container rim to aid watering.
- The tops of the bulbs should just be showing at the surface.
The next step - 'forcing' the bulbs to flower at Christmas
After planting, the bulbs need a dark and cool period (ideally 9°C/48°F) to encourage the development of a good root system.
- Place the potted bulbs in a black polythene bag and stand them in a cellar or dark corner of a shed or garage
- Check regularly and water if there are signs that the growing medium is drying out or that the vase needs topping up
- Bowls or pots without drainage holes should be tipped on their sides for a while after watering to allow the excess to run out
- Place the potted bulbs in a cool, sunless situation outdoors, such as against a north-facing wall or fence
- Cover them with 15cm (6in) of bark or compost
- There will be less risk of worms entering the containers if the containers are set on a firm base, such as pieces of slate or old paving slabs
Growing hyacinths in bulb vases
This is an alternative method for growing hyacinths. The bulb should be slightly smaller in diameter than the vase so that it sits snugly in the vase. Fill the glass with water to the neck and then place the bulb in the top. The water level should be just below the bottom of the bulb. The plant can then be treated in the same way as potted hyacinths (below).
Forcing Narcissus ‘Paper White’
- Buy bulbs sold for growing as pot plants indoors
- Plant several bulbs per pot, with their tips just below the surface
- Use any good multi-purpose compost or bulb fibre
- Water well and leave on a warm, sunny windowsill
- Be ready to support plants as they can get lanky
- After blooming, leave in a frost-free place to die down and plant outdoors in a sheltered, sunny spot
Bringing bulbs into flower
Your bulbs need to be at a certain stage of development before they can be brought inside for display. Here are some guidelines;
- When roots have developed and the shoots are 4-5cm long (1½-2in), the pots can be brought indoors
- Initially, bring pots into a cool room away from bright light to allow the leaves to green up
- Then move them close to a window in warmer surroundings
- Do not stand them in a draught, or close to a source of artificial heat, such as on a shelf above a radiator
- A humid atmosphere is preferred. Stand pots and vases on shallow trays filled with gravel that is kept moist, but with the water level below the base of the pot
- If the leaves develop faster than the flower buds, move the pots to a cooler place and cover them again to keep them dark for a day or two, but no longer than this or the leaves may begin to turn pale
- Don’t forget to check regularly if the pots need watering or the vases topping up
Bulbs such as Narcissus 'Paperwhite' and N. 'Bridal Crown' are not hardy in most parts of the UK, so are best allowed to dry off and stored for replanting in containers later in the year.
Allow hyacinths to die down naturally after flowering and then plant the bulbs in the garden at twice their own height.
Hippeastrum bulbs can be kept in active growth for a few months, then rested and brought into flower again.
The main reasons for poor results are:
- Removing the bulbs too soon from their cool, dark conditions
- Too dry or too wet bulb fibre or compost
- The dark conditions not being cool enough
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.