The Daylily - A Perfect Perennial
by Ray Allen
Daylilies, the most popular perennials of them all: In the United States and Canada, it all started with the original "wild" orange daylily (right). Many North Americans think the tough old orange one they see in old gardens and along roadsides is a native wildflower, but it really isn't. No daylily is native to North America; most hail from Asia. But that old orange Asian species, called Hemerocallis fulva, is still popular, and it’s everywhere. In fact, in its homeland, China and Korea, it’s more than just another pretty flower; the buds have been roasted and eaten as part of the Asian diet for centuries.)
In Holland, where new daylily hybrids are created every year, they derisively call the old orange one “ditch lily” for obvious reasons—it grows in ditches! Compared to most other daylilies, the plants are larger, and the stems longer (taller), and once the clumps grow for a few years, they are hard work to divide. A big old clump in some grandmother’s (or grandfather’s) garden can be split into dozens of blooming-size plants, if you want to do the work. (Plan to use lots of muscle with a strong shovel, and then have an ax handy.)
Westward Ho! This old plant arrived on our shores early during the colonial period, and it was so popular, and “passed along” from so many gardeners to their neighbors, it now grows happily from coast to coast, often along roadsides. And how did it get to the far west? Simple. When the wagon trains went west, the old orange daylily rode along. Many a frontier gardener brought his or her daylily roots along from “back East.” The botanical histories say big clumps of old daylily roots were simply tossed on the backs of the wagons, and made the journey along with the families. That’s how tough and durable daylily roots can be.
Don't confuse them with the true lilies: Daylilies are not really "lilies." In fact, they are quite different. As you know, true lilies grow on tall stems with flowers at the top. Daylily flower stems (called "scapes") are generally much shorter, and grow from a fountain of grass-like foliage at ground level. By the way, even though the old reliable daylily is orange, don’t call them “Tiger Lilies.” That’s the common name of an equally famous, old species lily—a tall true lily that is orange with black spots. No daylily is a Tiger Lily.
Daylilies are members of the genus, Hemerocallis, not Lilium, which is the genus name of true lilies. Hemerocallis is a combination of two Greek words meaning “day” and “beautiful.” This tells you the flowers last only one day and are beautiful. Few people realize the flowers fade so quickly, because as one fades, the next one on the stalk (or “scape”) opens, keeping a planting of daylilies in bloom for weeks, sometimes for months.
Daylily roots - not bulbs: As all good gardeners know, daylilies don't grow from bulbs like true lilies and other famous bulb flowers like daffodils and tulips. Rather than one onion-like bulb, Daylilies form a mass of thickened, fleshy roots. These unique root systems hold so much moisture and nutrients, the plants can survive out of the ground for weeks, as our wagon train ancestors learned. This survival system, making them tough, and really easy to handle, is one of the reasons they're so popular today. They're also dependably hardy, so once you have them, you have them for years.
Easy, easy, easy to grow! Everybody loves Daylilies because there’s really no other perennial that adds more color with less work. They stay low, they grow almost anywhere with sun or some shade, they always bloom, and their fountain of foliage shades out any weeds close by. The only work involved may be dividing them every five years or so when the clumps become so leafy it inhibits the bloom. But many gardeners don’t even do that. Of course, they respond to regular watering, careful preparation of great soil, careful division as needed, and proper doses of fertilizer. So if you’re a meticulous gardener, you can make them shine like no other group. But if you ignore them, they’ll bloom well for you, too.
Types of daylilies for today's gardens: The famous old orange daylily and the well-known old yellow “lemon lily” are not the only "wild" daylilies, just the most famous. There are 20 daylily species, worldwide. Today from those 20 plants, more than 60,000 hybrids have been created, to satisfy gardeners who love daylilies, and just can't get enough. Hybridizing daylilies for various colors and styles is not new. Famous old reliable hybrids like soft pink 'Barbara Mitchell' (see photo below) and 'Catherine Woodbury' - the lovely lavender and yellow bicolor - have been around for decades. And of course, by now there are various flower forms. The American Hemerocallis Society lists these as official types: Circular, Triangular, Star, Informal, Ruffled, Flat, Recurved, Trumpet, Spider, and Double.
Try the Re-bloomers for twice the bloom: Today's craze for re-blooming daylilies all began with 'Stella d'Oro', the now-famous yellow dwarf daylily that blooms once during late spring (the regular daylily blooming season), and then again in late August and into fall. Today, there are hundreds of re-bloomers, from dwarfs to full-size beauties. But “Stella” is still the star. Look around, and you’ll see whole borders lined with these yellow flowers from your neighbors’ yards to the local mall and gas stations. Like all Daylilies, they’re tough, and they’re there every year with more and more blooms. (Photo above shows Stella in full bloom.)
The latest and greatest: In any group of highly popular hybrids, there is always something newer and "better." Some real break-through successes of new types for their times are daylilies like 'Victoria's Secret' and 'Big Smile', with elaborately ruffled petals and clear contrasts of several magnificent colors. (Victoria’s Secret is the lavender one with yellow ruffled edges, top right in the combination photo above. Big Smile is the yellow/melon-colored bi-color in the bottom row of the same group photo above.)
The Society. Like most great groups of plants, daylilies have their own “society,” a very well-organized group of enthusiasts, growers, hybridizers, etc., who specialize in this plant. For daylilies, it’s the famous American Hemerocallis Society (AHS), whose excellent fact-filled website quickly points out that the society is not only “American”, but the “International Organization.” This is where the current 60,000+ daylily hybrids are registered.
Most Popular Daylilies. The AHS conducts a famous “Popularity Poll” each year, to determine which are the big favorites in North America. They do it by region, and then create a combined result from them all. Of the very well-known older hybrids that are always mentioned, “Barbara Mitchell” and “Strawberry Candy” are two that seem to jump out of the results lists for recent years.
How to talk like a Daylily Expert—if you really want to. To discuss daylilies, you’ll need to know the official names of various bloom-types, and also how to describe the coloring of exotic new hybrids. The American Hemerocallis Society has compiled the following list. Learn it, and you won’t just have to tell your friend that your favorite daylily is that new “yellow and purple one.” You’ll be able to say, “Oh yes, my favorite is a new lavender reverse bitone with yellow bands, evenly picoteed, and just lightly dusted along the midribs.” For a translation, see below.
What color patterns are found in hybrid daylily flowers? The following information is from the American Hemerocallis Society:
Modern daylilies display a complex variety of color patterns that were unknown in the original wild types. The patterns include:
Self The simplest pattern in which the flower segments (i.e., petals and sepals) are all the same color (e.g., pink and rose). The stamens and throat may be different.
Edged or Picoteed On some daylilies, the edges of the flower segments are either lighter or darker than the segment color. The width of the edge can range from a very narrow "wire-edge" to as much as 1/4 to 1/2 inches.
Midrib This is the center vein running lengthwise through each flower segment. In some cultivars, the midrib is different in color from the rest of the segment. The midrib can be flush with the surface, raised above it, or recessed.