Amaryllis Won’t Bloom? Daffodils Not Flowering?

“ Why won’t my amaryllis re-bloom?”

If only I had the proverbial dime for each time a reader wrote to me – at the New York Times, at Yankee, at (oh distant past) McCall’s – asking that question, I’d be rich. And if there were also dimes for “ why didn’t my daffodils flower?” Bill Gates would have to look to his laurels.

Amaryllis reblooming; this one is about 5 years old.

Amaryllis reblooming; this one is about 5 years old.

Answers were and are mostly about getting enough sun on the leaves that feed the bulb. Flowers for next year are already formed when these bulbs go dormant, so the stronger they are at that stage, the better the flowers will be. Good drainage is also essential, especially while the bulbs are leafless. And they prefer near-neutral soil, though they can make do in most cases.

Wet or very acid soil, shade, leaf-braiding and cutting leaves before their work is done are the most likely suspects when amaryllis or daffodils won’t flower. But there’s also another culprit that gets a lot less attention: the narcissus bulb fly, Merodon equestris.

It looks and sounds a lot like a bumblebee. It is or can be present anywhere narcissi are grown. Its larvae are what do the damage, entering the bulb from the basal plate and literally eating its heart out. Because they’re deep inside the bulb, you don’t know you have a problem until it’s too late.

And you may not know even then, because damaged bulbs can still send up a few leaves and some of them even recover enough to bloom again –  in 4 or 5 years.

Amaryllis with bulb fly damage

Amaryllis with bulb fly damage, note healthy outer scales

After spending several months eating and growing, the bulb fly larva exits in early spring, pupates in the ground and emerges about 2 weeks later as an adult. Soon the females lay eggs, usually one or two to a customer, at the base of inner leaves as near as possible to the neck. When they hatch, the tiny larvae crawl down to the bulb, feed on the base for a while, then eat their way in and here we go again.

Since each female can lay anywhere from 40 to 100 eggs, it really pays to stop the flies before they get well started. But

Control

isn’t easy. The fly has few natural enemies and even the strong poisons no one in their right mind would want to use aren’t terribly effective.

Catching the adult flies is tricky. First you have to recognize them.

Narcissus bulb fly (Merodon equestris)

Narcissus bulb fly (Merodon equestris)

Photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,Bugwood.org

They’re easy to mistake for bumblebees unless you’re close enough to see that the legs don’t dangle when they fly and there’s only one pair of wings (bees have two), but low clumsy-looking flight patterns and a complete disinterest in flowers should set off warning bells.

Like all flies they’re hard to sneak up on; make sure you don’t cast a shadow. Then whap straight down with a fly swatter or insect net. They fly up to get away and if you come at them sideways they usually escape. And they’re tough. No matter which weapon you use, be sure they’re dead before calling the job done.

If you have something else to do with yourself on spring days when the sun is shining, you can try diatomaceous earth. A heavy dusting at ground level can discourage egg-lying and if a newly hatched larva encounters it that will take care of that.

Covering the planting with reemay or another barrier is sometimes recommended, presumably for daffodil fanciers who are thinking show bench, not landscape. I wouldn’t put it in the garden but do intend to use it this year to protect the amaryllis.

They summer outdoors in the vegetable garden and have never been much bothered even though their exposed necks make them extremely vulnerable. Every once in a while I’d lose a bulb but it didn’t strike me as a big deal. The daffodils, narcissi, hyacinths, tulips and lilies, all potential targets, seemed to be doing fine. But this winter there were 4 victims out of two dozen bulbs.

Too many. Those larvae are toast, needless to say, but I’d be a fool to ignore the warning. The d.e.is going out too, and I plan to keep a swatter handy.

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8 Comments »

  • Lily Said,

    Just a few hours ago, I did cuttage on my Red Peacock amaryllis. It resembles the one your bulb had. I never knew this is the infamous narcissi bulb fly. I still have about 5 more amaryllis bulbs that did not grow much leaves this summer. And now I know why. I hope some are salvageable.

    Thank you for this informative blog.

    • Leslie Said,

      Hi Lily

      I’m glad the post was helpful, though sorry to hear you got hit. You may be able to salvage some of the damaged bulbs, but it’s going to be years before they put on much of a show and in the meantime they won’t look particularly attractive. Unless they have sentimental value you’re probably better off discarding them (after removing any bulb fly larvae!) and getting some new ones. This is the season when bulb suppliers offer the largest selection so why not give yourself a treat or two?

  • Jhosie Said,

    Great info. However, I have two amaryllis both purchase the same time and from the same place. One I have no problem with so far but the other will not bloom, it grows beautiful leaves always and even sprout another shoot at the side, even after I’ve cut the leaves off a few times. I dont think I’ve the fly problem because both of the are inside on the same table… Any other suggestions?

    Welcome Jhosie,

    It sounds as though your amaryllis is behaving classically, by which I mean frustrating in ways impossible to diagnose. Some possibilities: 1) the non-bloomer may not be getting a chance to mature. Different varieties can proceed at very different rates, so the plant may be getting pruned before it has set a flower bud. 2) It may be an evergreen variety like the Papilio. Some of them resent being forced into the usual dormant period. 3) This may be another example of too much of a good thing. When healthy plants put out lots of greenery but refuse to bloom, the culprit is often too much high-nitrogen fertilizer. 4) Who knows? I’ve come to think amaryllis are a bit like computers: they malfunction mysteriously and then – sometimes! – mysteriously get better for reasons best known to themselves. Here’s hoping yours behaves itself this year!
    LL

  • Donna Said,

    I have a row of daffodils that have bloomed beautifully for more than 10 years…and are not overcrowded. The bulbs came from my mother when she thinned hers. This year I only have 7 blooms in the whole row, and no more buds. Last year after they bloomed and before the foliage had died, my husband cut off just the tips of the foliage with the mower. It was only the tips and the remainder of the foliage was left to die undisturbed. Was loosing the tips enough to cause them not to set buds and bloom this year?

    Welcome, Donna
    and condolences on the poor daffodil performance. Hard to say what’s ailing them but can’t help wondering how long your mother lets them go between dividings. They may be more crowded underground than they look on top.
    You’re right that minor mowing shouldn’t have mattered, assuming the damaged leaves didn’t turn sickly, but the mower does make me wonder: did the grass get started unusually early and if so were there also trees leafing out and shading the bulb foliage so it got less sun than usual? Any extra lawn fertilizer? (Too much foliage can be as bad as too little). And if your late spring/early summer was as wet as it was in Maine last year, that could’ve had an effect too.
    Or of course it could have been the dreaded fly; you might want to dig up a blind bulb or two and have a look. If it were me, I’d dig up several, just to see if this is the fall to order some new thrills. In any event, I sure hope next year returns to beautiful normal!
    Good luck,
    Leslie

  • Tabbie Said,

    This is the first year I’ve had amaryllis,their very pretty although mine are mostly leaves maybe one out of 6 flowers have bloomed the other day when I was watering them I noticed what I thought was a bumble bee,it was odd to me because of the very cold weather we’ve had for months now,I will treat them as you suggested I hope I’ve caught it soon enough, thanks so much for your help!!

    Hi Tabbie,

    I hope you don’t have bulb flies! And I do wonder: where did you get your bulbs? First year amaryllis, sold as naked bulbs either mail order or at nurseries, are usually pest-free when they arrive – and pretty much guaranteed to bloom, usually before they’ve made much in the way of leaves. Are your plants “pups?” the offshoots of larger bulbs, perhaps given by a friend or sold at a neighborhood plant sale? That would explain both leaves and flies…
    anyway, good luck.

  • i had read to encouragebigge blossoms to cut the leaves off your plants they are not dieased as shown but only got two leaves whereas others got the usual fan over 50 plants produced only 3 blossoms. now how can this be corrected if it can or should i just remove bulbs. they were not planted by soaking in warm water they were given to me.
    Please help me Leslie

    hi Susan,
    I wish I COULD help, but with amaryllis it’s always a matter of the individual plant… or so it seems. Fifty plants sure sounds like a lot, especially if they only produced 3 flowers in total. Cutting the leaves off shouldn’t be necessary as a stimulus to flowering; the key to blossom formation is: first, grow healthy leaves (which you seem to have done). Second, allow the bulb to dry out and cool down, so it thinks it has gone through a southern hemisphere winter. Cutting off the (now yellowing) leaves helps tidy things up, but it’s not really necessary.

    That said, the number of plants, the fact that they were given to you and your question about “removing” them leads me to think you may be somewhere where it’s warm enough to leave amaryllis in the ground year round. If so, the first possibility may be simply that your bulbs are still too young to produce flowers – it takes them a couple of years of leaf-making to bulk up enough to bloom. Other than that, there may be drainage, sun or fertility issues about which, being a Northerner, I know zilch. If you are indeed in a year-round-in-ground location, you’re likely to get much better advice from your local extension service or a gardener whose amaryllis you admire.
    good luck!

    • Susan A Said,

      yes i live on the west coast of Florida just above Tampa
      we may get a cold snap for three months temps being 50″ very few times do we get temps that will dip into the high 30 but they only last about a week our winter hovers around 45″ to 50″
      thank you Ill see if I can find a local florist and not home depot or lowes.
      thank you

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