narcissus paperwhite table centrepiece

This is the most successful, long-lived Christmas table centre I have ever made: a great tiered fountain of scented Paperwhite narcissi. Kept cool in my greenhouse, it looked good for nearly a month.

Most narcissus varieties take 16-18 weeks from planting to flowering, but not Paperwhites. These, I've found, need only 6-8 weeks in my frost-free but cold polytunnel (or 4-6 weeks somewhere a little warmer at about 10-15ºC). Narcissi do not require a period in the dark to force them, and if you don’t get round to planting them yourself, you can buy pots of them at the last minute. With buds already formed, they will come into flower reliably within a week or two in the warm.

There are several other 'Tazetta' varieties which, if you get on with planting them in late summer and bring them into the warm house about three weeks before Christmas, will be in flower by then too. I force 'Erlicheer', 'Avalanche' and 'Silver Chimes'. All these need a spell in the cold to flower well, at a temperature below 10ºC.

If you don't have the room for a Paperwhite arrangement like this, still make a few pots with seven or eight bulbs in each to scatter round the house. You can do these in glass containers full of pebbles and water, with no compost. This alternative looks modern and crisp.

you will need:

  • 2 pots of decreasing size (see below)
  • 20-30 Narcissus ‘Paper White’ bulbs – depending on pot size (see below)
  • Planting medium – two-thirds soil-based compost, one-third grit, or bulb fibre
  • Bunch of silver birch or hazel twigs, 1m long
  • Silver and clear-glass baubles, and candles, to decorate
  • Crocks and a very large platter


You will need as large a pot or bowl as you can fit in the middle of your table to form the base of the arrangement (mine is huge – 60cm wide at the top x 20cm deep), with a smaller one stacked on top. Narcissus bulbs are large, with an extensive root structure, so deep pots are ideal.

You can plant the bulbs in plastic pots, three to a pot (or buy them already planted), and then move them into your final table centre as they come into flower, or plant them straight into their final pots from the start.

Plant the bulbs just below the soil surface, about 2.5cm apart, into a soil-based compost lightened with some grit, with crocks at the bottom of the pot (or use bulb fibre). Store them somewhere cold, at a temperature below 10ºC. Keep the compost moist, but not dripping wet.

Once the bulbs really start to shoot, with leaves up to 20-25cm, bring them into the warm. If they’re still in plastic pots, transfer them into your final pots. (Place a large platter underneath the largest pot.) Add the bulbs to the pots layer by layer, packing them in as thickly as you can with more of the planting medium.

If you’ve planted them straight into the final pots, then just assemble them at the table. Poke in a handful of silver birch or hazel twigs around the bulbs in every layer to support them. This looks lovely and staves off collapse. Water as and when the compost begins to dry out.

As a final touch, hang silver and clear glass baubles on the twigs and surround the whole thing with a halo of candles on the table. With this on your Christmas dining table, who needs a Christmas tree?

Once it's all over, bear in mind that Paperwhite Narcissi are not hardy. But don’t chuck them: store them. When they’ve finished flowering, leave them in their pots for the following year, or dry them off, leaving the leaves to shrivel on the bulb, and re-pot them again late next year. I've had the same Paperwhite bulbs flowering every winter for the past 3 years.

Watch Sarah make this arrangement in her video: