A white Christmas doesn’t have to mean a holiday with snow blanketing the ground. While searching through racks of antique Christmas cards and postcards over the weekend I noticed a recurring theme: holly and greens were often mixed in a bouquet with white blooms: white Lenten roses, white cyclamen, white chrysanthemums and camellias and, most common of all, white lily of the valley. In the 18th and 19th centuries, white was the color of choice for Christmas flowers. 

That was long before exotic and showy poinsettias were shipped by the truckload all over the country, before an orchid plant could be had in any supermarket or hardware store. The only plants available for the holidays in the early 1900s either came from one’s own garden or, if you were wealthy, your own glasshouse, or, for those who lived in a large city, from florist shops that purveyed plants and flowers that could be forced into bloom during the shortest days of the year. In 1900, most American home gardens had many greens and plants that could be dug for the holidays. Freshly picked holly greens, pine and spruce were often combined with woodland plants, especially those bearing red berries, and lily of the valley, which was as commonly offered for forcing by the home grower as paperwhites are today. While crisp paperwhite blossoms are appealing at this time of the year, and readily available, their scent can be overwhelming in many cases, so much so that the delicate smell of lily of the valley would be a welcome relief, but these tiny blossoms have fallen from favor as forcing plants and I have found only one online source for them in recent years. The good news is, if you don’t mind paying a lot for them, they can be potted up and blooming in three to four weeks. 

Lily of the valley aren’t, strictly speaking, bulbs, but you treat them in a similar way. If you should purchase some pips, as the sprouting plants are called, soak them in warm water for a couple of hours before planting them in a loamy soil with the sprouting tips placed just below the surface of the soil. Because these pips have an extensive root structure, a tall, narrow pot is best. Lily of the valley likes more moisture than most bulbs, so water them well. Like other forced blossoms, if you leave the foliage after they bloom and tuck them away where you don’t have to look at them, in the spring you can plant them in the garden in a shady, moist spot and they will thrive. They may take a year to recover from forcing, but once they have, they will last and spread for decades.

Should you find that this is a plant you’d like to have blooming for the holidays in the future, if you have a patch of lily of the valley in your garden, you can plan ahead and easily force them inside. In October or early November, when you’re winding up garden cleanup, dig a clump of lily of the valley, trim the roots back to six inches or so and give them a rinse under the outside faucet. Squeeze them into a tall clay pot, adding fresh soil and perhaps a mossy blanket of mulch, and then bring them into the house to force. What they like best is a warm room with cool nights, so they’re happy in a room where the fire is allowed to go out at night or temperatures are allowed to drop into the 50s. Alternatively, you can place the pots on a cool windowsill, but they may slow down and take five or six weeks to bloom. 

If you give lily of the valley a pass this holiday, there are plenty of other white-blooming plants to mix with greens on a mantle or tabletop. Most nurseries have a good selection of enormous white-blooming amaryllis bulbs ready for potting up. If you purchase a bulb, try to use a good, heavy pot, as these tall bloomers can topple over if placed in too lightweight a pot. Fill the pot about half full with dampened potting mix, set the bulb on top of the mix and fill in around the bulb with additional mix, leaving the top third of the bulb exposed. The final level of the soil should be about a half inch below the rim of the pot to allow for watering. Firm the mix and water lightly to settle it around the bulb. Place the pot where the temperature remains above 60 degrees. The warmer the temperature, the faster the bulb will sprout. Water when the top inch of the potting mix is dry to the touch. Provide lots of sunshine as soon as the bulb sprouts, and rotate the pot frequently to prevent the flower stalks from leaning toward the light. The flower stalks may require support to keep from toppling. I often push some pretty twigs into the soil when planting the bulb, to act as future support, and sometimes put a mossy covering on top of the soil. 

If you want winter whites, the simplest choice is to pick up some cyclamen. These beautiful plants, with heart-shaped leaves and blossoms that, to me, resemble wind-tossed umbrellas, look exotic but are easy to care for. They thrive in cool temperatures that drop as low as 40 degrees at night and rise into the 60s during the day. Place them close to a bright south-, east-, or west-facing window for maximum sunlight. Let cyclamen’s soil dry out before waterings: when the pot feels light or the soil feels dry just below the surface, water thoroughly and let it drain. Pour out any water left in the saucer so that the soil doesn’t stay soggy. Fertilize with regular houseplant fertilizer. To keep cyclamen plants blooming, remove flowers as they finish by cutting the stems near the base of the plant. Sometimes the petals will fall off and leave a round seed capsule that resembles a flower bud. Remove these, too. Long after your other Christmas plants have finished blooming, a well-cared-for cyclamen will often still have blossoms to brighten the dark days of winter.