You’ve probably done this too, perpetrated the scent of paperwhites on your near and dear because you saw one of the adorable little kits at the home center with the dehydrated peat moss disk hiding underneath a plastic pot, or else you bought the little white gravel packet and glass vase hoping to observe the snaking progress of paperwhite roots around the stones. This dear readers is how paperwhite pollution starts, but this particular air quality issue does not end there.
I can’t recall the very first time I encountered paperwhites, but I certainly remember the smell. To call the latter distinctive is true but also a euphemism because the scent can verge on the offensive for many people. Growing up, after weathering some seasons of my experimentation with forcing bulbs ( paperwhites) my older brother requested that they be removed from the kitchen. In fact he also asked for a ban on the dining room, and may even have asked someone to please just pitch the whole pot of them out. The paperwhites were saved from this barbarity, but only just. There was you see, that little matter of their smell.
In The Fragrant Year that odor is described pulling no punches,”The familiar paperwhite (N. tazetta subsp. papyaceus) …with its clusters of crystalline shallow cupped blossoms, has a reaching scent, strange and unpleasant to some who, after the first inhalation find Parkinson’s word “stuffing” applicable. More than two or three clusters in the confines of even a large room try their endurance, but we rather like the heavy scent.”
This is a case of flower B.O. There is no other way to describe it. Do flowers have personal odors you ask? Actually they do. It all depends on the kind of pollinator they intend to attract. If that pollinator is a lovely air headed butterfly then all they have to send out is a pervasive get your nectar here scent. If however it’s something like a fly or a moth they hope to vamp, well then a whole gamut of things that we might not find too appealing get into the mix in heavy, indolic, almost mammalian forms, and surprisingly large doses.
I still love the look of paperwhite greens coming up in the dark days of December or January but have learned to choose my narcissus carefully. I don’t insist on paperwhites which to me smell of burning pot handles and therefore disasters in the kitchen, no, I go for Narcissus “Soleil d’Or” which is bright yellow, perhaps less classical but wonderfully cheerful, and possessing a tangy slightly fruity scent. Described as the mingled essence of pineapple, orange and banana, what more could you ask?
Some of the white and gold varieties of Narcissus have a lovely apricot perfume, similar to osmanthus, and for those of us who love osmanthus perfumes that is a big plus. As for the original crystalline paperwhites, these days I’d rather forgo the experience. Some perfume is only attractive to pollinators, and who wants to double date with a housefly?