All About Daffodils

Daffodils (Narcissus) are a welcome sign of spring.  Their bright, cheery blooms are some of the first to open in an Iowa spring.  They are long-lived, winter-hardy, and relatively pest and disease-free, making them an easy addition to the landscape.  Their unique flowers emerge in early spring, with some as early as late March in southern Iowa and most in full bloom in April.  To enjoy their beauty, gardeners must plant daffodils in the fall.

Types  |  Selection  |  Growing Conditions  |  Planting  |  Care  |  Transplanting & Division  |  Cut Flowers  |  Forcing  |  Potential Problems  |  FAQs  |  More Information

daffodils blooming with hyacinthTypes & Cultivars

The unique daffodil flower is composed of a "cup" or "trumpet" surrounded by a ring of "petals."  The cup or trumpet is officially called a corona and is botanically considered a structure located between the petals and the stamens of the flower and derived from either of these organs. This corona is a defining characteristic of daffodils.  The “petals” are actually composed of the petals and sepals and are collectively known as the perianth.

While they are only found in a relatively narrow color range of whites, yellows, and oranges, daffodils have a remarkable amount of diversity.  They can vary in size, petal shape, corona size and shape, and color.  There are several thousand daffodil varieties (cultivars). All daffodils can be placed into one of thirteen divisions based on physical characteristics and genetic heritage.

  • Division I: Trumpet Daffodils - One flower to a stem. The cup or corona is equal to or longer than the perianth segments.
  • Division II: Large Cupped Daffodils - One flower to a stem. The cup or corona is more than one-third but less than equal to the length of the perianth segments.
  • Division III: Small Cupped Daffodils - One flower to a stem. The cup or corona is no more than one-third the length of the perianth segments.
  • Division IV: Double Daffodils - One or more flowers to a stem. The perianth or corona, or both, is doubled.
  • Division V: Triandrus Daffodils - Two or more pendant flowers to a stem. The perianth segments curve backward or are reflexed.
  • Division VI: Cyclamineus Daffodils - Usually one flower per stem. The perianth segments curve back away from the cup. The flowers somewhat resemble the cyclamen in appearance.
  • Division VII: Jonquilla Daffodils - Several fragrant flowers per stem. Leaves or foliage narrow and dark green.
  • Division VIII: Tazetta Daffodils - Many flowers per stem. Flowers possess a musky, sweet fragrance. This division includes the non-hardy, paperwhite
    daffodils, which are commonly forced indoors during winter.
  • Division IX: Poeticus Daffodils - Usually one flower to a stem. Perianth segments are pure white. Cup is usually disc-shaped.
  • Division X: Bulbocodium Daffodils - Flower consists of small, insignificant petals and a large, prominent corona. Flowers resemble a “hoop petticoat.”
  • Division XI: Split Corona Daffodils - The corona or cup is split more than half its length. Sometimes referred to as butterfly daffodils.
  • Division XII: Miscellaneous Daffodils - All daffodils not falling into one of the previous divisions.
  • Division XIII: Species, Wild Variants, and Wild Hybrids - All species and wild or reputedly wild variants.

Learn more about the best cultivars to grow in your Iowa landscape in this publication: Suggested Daffodil Cultivars for Iowa.

Tête-à-Tête daffodilSelection

Select Daffodils from Different Divisions for a Long Bloom Period

Daffodils have a wide range of sizes, colors, and bloom times. Plants can be as short as 4 to 6 inches and as tall as 20 inches when in bloom.  While yellow is a classic daffodil color, flowers may also be white, cream, orange, pink, and many shades in between.  With proper selection, you can have daffodils in bloom in your garden from late March through the end of April, depending on the spring weather conditions. 

Selecting High-Quality Bulbs

When purchasing daffodils, select only firm, solid bulbs for planting. Avoid bulbs that are shriveled or lightweight. Bulbs discolored by mold or containing soft spots should also be avoided.  Size matters when selecting bulbs. The bigger the bulb, the better the flower display. Smaller bulbs often bloom, but you get more bang for your buck with larger ones.

Spring-flowering bulbs can be purchased as early as late August.  Often for the best selection, you have to shop early.  Bulbs purchased in late summer should be stored in a cool, dry place (such as a garage or basement) until they can be planted in fall.

Growing Conditions

Light Requirements

Daffodils should be planted in a full-sun location, but they can tolerate part-sun locations under deciduous trees. Early blooming varieties are often successful beneath a high-branched deciduous tree because they usually flower before the tree fully leafs out. After the bulbs have finished flowering, many can tolerate the light shade from trees.  If the shade is too dense, daffodils will gradually decline in vigor and won’t bloom well.  If this is observed, move to an area that gets at least six hours a day of direct sunlight.

white daffodils with birch treeSoil Requirements

Daffodils tolerate a wide range of soils but require well-drained soils. Poorly drained or wet soils often cause decline and rot, making them short-lived in the garden. Amend poor soils before planting by incorporating organic matter, such as compost or peat. 

Planting Arrangement & Companion Plants

Plant daffodils in drifts, clusters, or groups to achieve the greatest visual impact in the garden. When planting larger varieties, plant at least five or more bulbs of the same variety in an area.  Often, groupings of 10 or more look the best. Smaller growing types should be planted in drifts of at least 25 bulbs and look best in groupings of 50 or more bulbs. Bulbs planted alone or in rows do not look as good in the garden as large sweeps or drifts of color. 

Consider planting daffodils amongst ornamental grasses, hosta, daylily, and other perennials that will grow up later in the season and hide the foliage of the bulbs as it yellows. Daffodil foliage is particularly persistent, often not browning back until early or even mid-summer.  Select a location where their early blooms can be seen and appreciated, such as along commonly used walkways or near the front door. 


When to Plant 

October is the ideal time to plant spring-flowering bulbs like daffodils in Iowa. This allows bulbs to establish and develop good roots before winter. Planting bulbs too early in the season, in September when soil temperatures have yet to cool, may cause foliage to emerge in the fall. Procrastinators can plant daffodil bulbs as late as December if the ground remains unfrozen.

Planting Depth

The planting depth for daffodils is approximately three times the bulb's height. Most daffodils should be planted 6 to 8 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Small cultivars, such as ‘Tête-à-Tête,’ should be planted 4 to 6 inches deep and 4 inches apart. 

drill with bulb auger
Using a drill and bulb auger can make planting individual bulbs easier.

How to Plant

Once the location has been determined, dig a hole to the appropriate depth and set bulbs in the ground with the pointed end up. Backfill with soil and water the area to help settle the soil around the bulbs and provide plenty of moisture for root growth, especially if soils are dry. Avoid overwatering, as daffodils do not tolerate wet conditions.


While not typically necessary, fertilizers can be used at planting. These fertilizers are more important for developing next year's bulb than the upcoming spring flowers.  If using fertilizers, apply all-purpose fertilizers, such as a 5-10-5, at 2 to 3 pounds per 100 square feet, and work it thoroughly and deeply into the soil before planting. A good organic fertilizer for bulbs is bonemeal with its high phosphorus content. Apply 3 to 4 pounds of bonemeal per 100 square feet. Alternatively, you can work one tablespoon of bonemeal into the bottom of the planting hole. Bone meal is often slower acting and more expensive than the other fertilizers.  Daffodils rarely need regular fertilizer to grow well.  Plants tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and grow quite well.  Only add fertilizer if a soil test indicates that soil fertility levels are exceptionally low.


After blooming, proper care of daffodils through the remainder of spring and early summer helps to ensure repeat performances in succeeding years.

large drift of daffodilsDeadheading

Deadheading is the removal of spent flowers. While tulips should be deadheaded immediately after flowering, it is not necessary to deadhead daffodils. The vigor of tulip bulbs quickly declines if tulips are not promptly deadheaded and seed pods are allowed to develop. However, seed pod formation on daffodils has little impact on plant vigor. Some gardeners do deadhead daffodils for aesthetic reasons, as the spent flowers/seed pods are unattractive.  


Daffodils rarely need regular fertilizer to grow well.  Plants tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and grow quite well.  Only add fertilizer if a soil test indicates that soil fertility levels are exceptionally low. 

Weed Control

Control weeds which compete with the plants for water and nutrients. Often, hand weeding is most practical.

Leave the Foliage Until it Dies Back Naturally

Daffodil foliage should not be removed until it has turned brown and died. The time it takes the foliage to die back depends on bulb type, weather, and other factors. The foliage of daffodils usually doesn’t die back until late June or early July. The foliage of daffodils and other spring-flowering bulbs is performing a vital function. It’s manufacturing food for the bulbs. Premature removal of the plant foliage reduces plant vigor and bulb size, resulting in fewer flowers next spring. After the foliage has turned brown, it can be safely cut off at ground level and discarded.  

Braiding or Bundling Foliage is Unnecessary

Daffodil foliage tends to get floppy and look a little unkempt. However, it’s best to leave the foliage alone and not tie or braid the leaves. Daffodil foliage manufactures food for the plant. Adequate amounts of food must be stored in the bulbs for the daffodils to bloom the following spring. Tying the leaves together with rubber bands or braiding the foliage reduces the leaf area exposed to sunlight. As a result, the leaves manufacture smaller amounts of food. In addition, tying or braiding the foliage is a time-consuming chore.  

Transplanting and Division

yellow and white daffodilsDaffodils can be dug up and replanted as soon as the foliage dies back (turns brown) in early summer. Daffodils can also be dug up and replanted in the fall (October). If you want to move daffodil bulbs in the fall, mark the site when the foliage is present so the bulbs can be located in October. 

Once dug, bulb clumps can be separated into individual bulbs or smaller clusters of bulbs.  It is often easiest to replant the bulbs in their new location immediately.  If they can't be planted immediately, the bulbs should be stored until fall. Once dug, thoroughly dry the bulbs for 2 to 3 weeks. Then, place the bulbs in mesh bags and store them in a cool (50 to 65°F), dry place until fall planting. Inspect the bulbs several times during the summer and discard any showing signs of decay.

Daffodils as Cut Flowers

Daffodils make excellent cut flowers.  Cut blooms low on the plant before the blooms open when the bud is bent downwards at about a 45-degree angle.  For jonquil types or those with multiple blooms per stem, cut flowers when only one flower is open on the spike.  Once cut place them immediately in a bucket of clean water with floral preservative.  This ensures the longest vase life. Place in a cool, bright location indoors.  Most blooms will last about one week.  

Daffodils exude a slimy substance from the cut stems that can be transferred through the vase water to other flowers in the bucket or arrangement, shortening the vase life of those flowers.  To avoid this, place freshly cut flowers into a separate vase or bucket for a few hours.  Discard and replace the water; they can now be placed with other flowers and used (even re-cut if required) in arrangements without affecting the life of the other flowers.

Blooms can be stored for up to two weeks at 34°F and high relative humidity (90%).  Store stems upright.  Those laid down flat will bend upwards.


daffodils blooming indoorsDaffodils are excellent bulbs for forcing out of season, bringing bright colors indoors during winter, or adding beautiful blooms to containers in early spring.   Plant bulbs in containers in the fall and provide 12 to 16 weeks of cold temperatures.  Once potted blooms are removed from the cold treatment, blooms form in 3 to 4 weeks.  More details about the forcing process can be found in this article: How do you force daffodil bulbs indoors?

Most forced bulbs, like tulips and hyacinths, won’t bloom again when planted outdoors. Daffodils are an exception. Daffodils are more vigorous than tulips and most other spring-flowering bulbs. Forced daffodils can be saved and successfully planted outdoors.  

The care after flowering is important if attempting to save forced bulbs. After blooming, remove the spent flowers and place the plants in a sunny window. Water regularly until the foliage begins to yellow. At this point, gradually cut back on watering until the foliage withers and dies. Carefully remove the bulbs from the potting soil, allow them to dry for one to two weeks, then store them in a cool, dry location. Plant the bulbs in the fall. 

Potential Problems

Overall, daffodils have few issues.  They have no notable pest or disease issue in Iowa and unlike other spring blooms, like tulips, they are resistant to browsing by deer or rabbits.   

Foliage Emerges But No Flowers Form

If the daffodils aren’t blooming, the plants weren’t able to store enough food in their bulbs in the previous year. Daffodil foliage typically persists for four to six weeks after blooming. During this period, the daffodil foliage is manufacturing food. Much of the food is transported down to the bulbs. In order to bloom, daffodils must store adequate levels of food in their bulbs. Cutting off the foliage before it has died back naturally may prevent the plants from storing sufficient food in the bulbs.

Allow the daffodil foliage to die completely before removing it. Plants in partial shade in May and June may be unable to store enough food in their bulbs because of insufficient sunlight. Dig up daffodils growing in partial shade when the foliage has died back, and plant the bulbs in a location that receives at least six hours of direct sun per day. Weak (non-blooming) daffodils can be encouraged to flower again if given good care and favorable growing conditions. 

Early Emerging Foliage

Daffodils are often one of the first plants to emerge in spring.  It is not uncommon to see foliage poke out of the ground in late March in Iowa. However, mild winter weather can encourage premature growth. The early emergence of bulb foliage is most often seen on the south and west sides of homes and other buildings. These areas are usually warmer than the rest of the yard because sunlight is reflected off the building to the ground.  In addition, heated basements keep the soil near homes relatively warm.  

While the premature emergence of bulb foliage is undesirable, the danger is not as great as it may seem. The foliage of daffodils can tolerate cold temperatures. Normal winter weather (cold temperatures and snow) often returns, delaying further growth. A blanket of snow is especially helpful. The snow discourages additional growth and also protects the foliage from extreme cold.

daffodils in the snowFrost Damage to Leaves or Flowers

The foliage of daffodils can tolerate cold temperatures well.  Occasionally some damage may be seen when freezing temperatures hit spring bulbs later in the spring season while they are fully emerged and in bud or bloom.  Overall, even flowers can tolerate light freezes (low 30s to upper 20s °F) and even a little snow. Record cold temperatures (below the mid-20s) will damage or destroy many of the flowers of early blooming varieties. The foliage of fully emerged daffodil plants can also be damaged. Portions of the leaves may turn tan or brown, and the damaged leaves may collapse onto the ground.

No immediate action is needed to preserve cold-damaged spring bulbs. Despite its poor appearance, the foliage should not be cut back until it turns completely brown. The undamaged portions of the leaves need to be able to manufacture as much food as possible to have blooms next spring. Plants may still bloom if foliage is damaged but flower buds are not impacted. 

Bulb Rot

Daffodils that develop stunted, yellowed leaves or fail to emerge in the spring may be suffering from bulb rot. Cool, soggy conditions can favor infection by certain soilborne plant pathogens. Several different fungi and bacteria may infect bulb tissue.

These microorganisms often gain entrance through wounds created by insects or improper handling of the bulbs. Extended periods of wet weather favor infection. Diagnosis of below-ground problems involves hands-on investigation. Symptomatic plants need to be dug and examined. Diseased bulbs usually are discolored, soft, and may emit a foul odor. In some cases, there may be a black or bluish mold on the bulbs.

Diseased bulbs should be discarded, along with some of the surrounding soil. The best way to prevent the occurrence of bulb rots is to make sure the planting site is well-drained. Avoid planting in areas that are poorly drained or that collect water.

To minimize convenient entry points for pathogens, avoid wounding when handling bulbs. Buy from a reputable source and examine bulbs for bruises or other damage. Plant at the proper depth, encourage good air circulation and manage water needs. Plants that are growing vigorously are best able to resist diseases.


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Last reviewed:
April 2024