Originating before the formation of the Sea of Japan – 25 million years ago – daylilies (Hemerocallis) have come a long way since the first Chinese written record of them roughly 2,500 years ago. By the mid-1500s, two species, H. fulva, and H. flava, were observed in Europe when herbalists first applied the term Hemerocallis (from the Greek “beauty for a day” as each bloom lasts just a day). The term “Day Lillie” was coined shortly thereafter. However, the daylily is neither a lily nor a bulb but fibrous-rooted.
These yellow and orange species, narrow of petal and muddy in color, spread across America with pioneers and had naturalized along river banks by the early 1800s. Still found in ditches and around abandoned homesteads today – our grandmothers’ daylilies were invariably called “ditch or outhouse lilies”.
Late in the 1800s, two species were first crossed to produce a named hybrid. Hybridization was kick-started into high gear in the mid-1930s by the “father of the modern daylily,” Dr. Arlow Stout of the New York Botanical Gardens. But, even then, the forms were plain – no patterns or ruffling – on narrow-petaled plants of mostly dull yellows, oranges, and reds with little branching and few buds.
Types of Daylilies
In 130 years, the number of registered cultivars now exceeds 95,000, indicating that cross-pollinating is easy and a popular hobby. Daylilies usually bloom from seed in one to three seasons. Being near the same latitude as the areas in China where most species originated, both evergreen and deciduous varieties are very adaptable to our climate. Mid-June is the average peak bloom time in North Carolina. But, by proper selection, it is possible to have varieties that bloom from May into August, perhaps into the fall up to frost.
Today, bloom diameters range in size from 1.5 inches to 16 inches. Scape heights (the bloom stalk) range from 6 inches to over 6 feet. Forms range from singles (3 petals, 3 sepals) to doubles that could be mistaken for a peony, to spiders with long, narrow, twisting, and curling segments. Patterns include concentric eyes, huge green throats, contrasting edge colors with ruffles or “teeth,” stippling, veins, and spots. Grandmother would not recognize the modern daylily.
Daylilies can be divided and planted whenever the ground is not frozen, but early spring or mid-fall is ideal. They are easily shipped bare-root. Use a complete fertilizer, like 5-10-10, in early spring and a low nitrogen one in late summer or early fall. Provide 1 inch of water per week during the growing season. They prefer at least six hours of sun per day and adapt to wet, dry, clay, or sandy soils. A pH of 6.0-6.5 is best.
Using Daylilies in the Garden
Daylilies are an ideal landscape perennial. Fair warning – they do become addictive. Some daylilies are so striking that even a single clump can be a dazzling focal point in the garden for those not yet hooked on this addictive hobby. Some members of the American Daylily Society (ADS) collect daylilies like others collect coins or stamps. Thus, those who visit ADS Daylily Display Gardens or take regional and national tours typically see landscapes dominated by hundreds of varieties in all shapes, colors, and patterns.
Interspersed with other perennials and annuals, daylilies offer a most dramatic kaleidoscope of colors. Mass plantings or drifts of varying hues of a single color are a pleasing landscape solution for the non-collector. Consider the impressive statement they make along our interstate highways. There is also the Gertrude Jekyll color-coordinated scheme transitioning from the near-whites, yellows, golds, lavenders, and reds, to purples. There are no true blue daylilies, yet. The daylily’s versatility makes it an excellent choice for use in foundation plantings, around patios, ponds, and along garden paths. Grandmother would love them.
Ken Cobb is a Raleigh gardener, a past president of the American Daylily Society, and its immediate past Archivist/Historian. A retired computer programmer, he frequently writes both humorous and historical daylily articles appearing in the ADS journal, its regional newsletters, as well as the British Hosta and Hemerocallis Society journal.