Paper white narcissus grew in my mother's garden in the harsh desert climate of southern Nevada. They grew outside as well as in the large indoor "window box" garden that my grandfather built for her in the kitchen...at least that's what i call it...i have never seen anything like it since so i have no idea what else it might be called. The window box was behind a bay-type window that constituted the entire end wall of the kitchen. It was about 8 feet long and 3 feet deep and filled with soil. My mother grew mostly tropical plants in it, and my father rigged a little circulating water fall feature within a large volcanic rock they had collected from the desert.
The kitchen table stood in front of this indoor garden and in the winter, we dined with the luscious fragrance of paper white narcissus accompanying every meal.
When i moved to this northern climate i bought paper white bulbs from the local nursery every year to grow indoors, in a bowl of pebbles or marbles and water. About 25 years ago something insidious took over paper whites... only white-flowered ones were available and when they blossomed the fragrance was
i stopped buying unnamed bulbs locally and combed through catalogs for named bulbs with a description that included "pleasant fragrance." Whoever wrote those catalogs should be fired...the fragrance may have been less foul, but was not anywhere near "pleasant."
i finally decided to try and find out what happened to my beloved paper whites and asked one of America's daffodil experts, Brent Heath, why the market is now flooded with all-white paper whites that exude an unpleasant fragrance. His explanation was an old refrain:
Israeli flower farmers decided to get into the indoor bulb market and their hybridizers began messing about with paper whites in order to create bulbs that yielded more flowers on shorter stalks
and, as always seems the case in botany
the fragrance was altered dramatically
for the worse.
In most cases, hybridized flowers never retain the original fragrance genes
(think of "modern" roses pre-David Austin)
in the case of my beloved paper whites two things happened:
loss of color and decidedly unappetizing fragrance.
a small band of growers continues to love the old paper whites as much as i do and, happily, so does Brent Heath who makes sure to include them in his catalog
This year i grew 2 of the older ones
'Chinese sacred lily'...supposedly the oldest variety still available
i also ordered 'Golden Rain'
a rare (according to Brent) paper white "found by a grower in Cornwall, England" that is a "double mutation" of Grand Soleil d'Or
i am thrilled to report that Brent does not exaggerate when he describes the wonderfully sweet fragrance of these flowers in his catalog! Every morning i walk down stairs into the sweet perfume of tiny, golden narcissi.
'Golden Rain' and 'Grand Soleil d'Or' are as floriferous as can be and long flowering. My first bowl of 'Golden Rain' were in flower from mid-December through all of January. (i do keep them in the same room where i over-winter lemon trees, rosemary, etc and temps remain cool). 'Chinese sacred lily' is more gangly and had only a few blossoms, but i love them all the same.
The hybridizers heard people's complaints (and fretted, no doubt, about lower sales) and have been working to "fix" their bulbs. Next year, i will order an all white that Brent says has become one of his favorites, 'Inbal-an'...a hybrid that he says is similar in appearance to stinky 'Ziva' but with a "pleasant and delicate fragrance"...i'm inclined to trust Brent...but my nose is telling me to wait until i smell for myself. i'll let you know next January if i agree.