Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Daylilies provide maximum pleasure with minimal fuss


For the Gazette

Published: 08-11-2023 1:20 PM

When I was growing up in Virginia, the roadsides in summer were lined with orange daylilies. These are sometimes called “ditch lilies,” an unfortunate moniker for these tirelessly cheerful flowers that never flag in the face of relentless heat or torrential downpours. Several years ago I wrote in this column about discovering that these plain orange daylilies, Hemerocallis fulva, don’t play nicely with others when it comes to sharing space in the garden. (I banished mine to a separate space where they can duke it out to their hearts’ content.)

Despite the thuggish tendencies of the Hemerocallis fulva, daylilies are considered by many gardeners to be a perfect perennial. This time of year, it’s hard to disagree. Daylilies are everywhere in July and August, boasting all the colors of the rainbow, everything except white and true blue. There’s even a color effect known as “diamond dust” caused by tiny crystals in the flowers’ cells that reflect light and give them a glittering appearance. In our area, some daylilies bloom as early as May while others wait until September. They range in size from around ten inches tall to over four feet. Some bloom at night and give off a lovely scent. Some have petals with ruffled edges; others are graced with contrasting eyes and throats.

The amazing diversity of daylilies is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until the 1920s, there were relatively few types of daylilies to choose from, in a limited palette of orange, yellow and rusty red. The development of new varieties began when an American botanist named ArlowBurkette Stout began experimenting with breeding daylilies. Stout, who worked at the New York Botanical Garden from 1911 until 1948, started with 20 species and produced more than 100 hybrids. Dr. Stout’s work sparked the popularity of new daylilies and intensive breeding programs in the U.S. that continue to this day, resulting in more than 45,000 varieties of hybrids.

In my opinion, one of the few downsides of daylilies is that there are so many to choose from. I am the kind of gardener who can’t decide on which pansies to buy in the spring. In “The Essential Earthman,” Henry Mitchell writes that “the best way to choose is to spend twenty-five years looking at various sorts in many gardens and shows, but this is not always practical.” Mitchell suggests that an easier way is to peruse the current favorite lists put out by daylily societies. In honor of Dr. Stout, the American Daylily Society gives its annual Stout Silver Medal to the variety deemed most excellent by a panel of judges. The list of past winners with accompanying photographs is a good place to start your search.

If you’re serious about collecting daylilies, you’ll be happy to know that one of the country’s most revered breeders of top-quality plants is OlallieDaylily Garden in South Newfane, Vermont, a few miles north of Brattleboro. A three-generation daylily farm, it offers more than 2,000 varieties. The farm has a terrific website, too: I confess I’ve never been to Ollalie — I’m afraid I might never come home!

Although the proliferation of daylily varieties is recent, the plant has been around for more than four millennia. Daylilies were originally cultivated throughout Asia and northern India; they were appreciated not only for their beauty but also for their medicinal and gastronomic uses. Confucius mentioned the flower in a poem around 500 B.C.E.

Daylilies most likely made their way to Europe with Silk Road traders in the 15th century. They came to America with the earliest European immigrants, who packed the tuberous roots in with their other precious belongings to start a new life on a new continent. By the early 1800s, daylilies were naturalized.

Naturalization wasn’t difficult, since one of the daylily’s many desirable qualities is its tolerance of less-than-ideal growing conditions. They will produce more blooms in full sun and humus-rich soil, but they can manage in poor soil and part shade. For optimum cultivation, the plants appreciate an annual dressing of compost and light fertilization and division every three or four years. They don’t require a lot of weeding because their growth habit discourages weeds from taking hold.

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Daylilies were originally considered a species of Lilium. In 1753, Carl Linnaeus gave the plant its own genus: Hemerocallis. The botanic name means literally “day” and “beautiful.” Tracy diSabato Aust, one of my favorite writers on the art of perennial gardening, has a different take on the significance of the name. I laughed out loud when I read her commentary in “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden.”

“The Greek term Hemerocallis means ‘beautiful for a day,’ but it could also be understood to mean ‘not beautiful for more than a day,’” Aust writes. “This being the case, daylilies are a deadheading nightmare. No matter how you refer to them — wet globs of tissue paper, slimy creatures, mush-mummies, or the like — daylily deadheads are ugly.”

Unlike Aust, I enjoy the task of deadheading; it’s one of those mindless, instantly gratifying garden chores. And I hope that her words don’t discourage people from diving into the world of daylilies. They are an immensely rewarding addition to any garden, giving maximum pleasure with minimal fuss. My daylilies are due for dividing. If I have any space left over when I’m done, I might find myself heading to South Newfane.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.