With well over 85,500 cultivars created and registered in the past 100 years, daylilies are something to write about! Hemerocallis , which means “beauty for a day,” is the scientific name for this perennial whose bloom lasts just one day, thus giving its common name, daylily. But do not worry, because there are more blooms to follow on each scape (flower stalk) for at least six more days. So a good-sized clump with six buds per scape will bloom for about two weeks. Current hybridizers aim for at least 20 buds per scape, creating a long bloom time. Daylily varieties can be found for each part of a blooming season that extends from May and until September. I even had a daylily that rebloomed in November! Peak season in Central Virginia is early July.
“You’ve come a long way baby!” is an apt tagline for the daylily. Hybridizers have transformed a few basic species of daylilies into such elaborate, colorful bloomers that they have been nominated as “the poor man’s orchid.” Most of you must be familiar with the classic orange “roadside” daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, native to Asia– a marvel of vigor because it is sterile (as is its cousin, ’Kwanzo’). Arriving here with the 18th century settlers, H. fulva has marched its way up and down and across our continent by sending out shoots, or stolons. If planted in a bed with other daylilies or perennials, it can easily crowd them out. Even a conscientious gardener trying to rein them in will often miss some stolons which will get going somewhere else in their or their neighbor’s bed.
Our modern hybrids come from an H. fulva variant and the 18 other fertile species also originating in Asia (mainly China, Korea and Japan). Dr. Arlow A. Stout, N.Y. Botanical Gardens, 1911 – 1947, is considered the father of the modern daylily. The first cultivar introduced by him in 1929 was ‘Mikado,’ derived from a complex of daylily species including an H. fulva variant. Depending on the variety, daylilies now grow in all United States regions but thrive in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 9.
Each daylily plant is called a fan. Daylilies have roots; a crown; a scape (flower stalk); tall, slender green foliage; buds; and blossoms. The flower, with its female pistil and male stamen, is the point at which crosses for new plants are made resulting in seed. Sometimes, a tiny plant called a proliferation appears on the scape below the blossom (similar to the baby plants of a spider plant). Proliferations may be rooted to form a plant (clone) identical to the mother plant. Often, small roots form and occasionally a flower is produced while the proliferation is still on the scape. In this case, cut the scape above the proliferation and cut about three inches of scape below the proliferation. Plant the cutting (preferably with rooting hormone) in a pot with the tiny roots just below the soil. A new clone will grow, but will be as small as a seedling when it comes back the following year.
Hybridizers begin their work by creating paper labels or a marking system for their desired crosses. Early in the morning, before the bees have had much time but after pollen has dried, they transfer pollen to end of the pistil (in the center of each flower). The flower on the parent plant is then labeled with the cross. When you visit a hybridizer’s garden, you might see labels hanging all over the plants!
Hybrid basics need to be understood for those who want to get more of their favorite cultivar. Hybrid daylilies form seed readily, but the new plant will not be true to the parent plant because it is a hybrid. Therefore, daylilies must be divided to get another cultivar matching the original. When a good size clump of lilies develops by its ‘clonal’ increase from the roots, the plant is dug and the multiple plants separated. It is best to divide the clump down to two or three fans which are then planted. The best time to divide is in late summer or in very early fall, giving the new plants a chance to develop roots before winter sets in. If you plant in the spring, mulch the plants well and be sure to water them heavily at least once a week. Growers usually send you plant divisions bare-rooted. Their foliage should be cut back to about 6 – 7 inches, and they should be soaked for an hour.
When planting a daylily, dig a deep hole with soil mounded in the middle. Place the roots over the mound and then cover them. If the plants come in a pot, be sure that the crown is at the soil surface level. Daylilies won’t bloom well if planted too deeply. Water the hole well so that the water runs out and the soil falls back around the roots. Put a plastic marker with the plant’s name written in PENCIL. Most labels made with markers fade. After the first freeze in the fall, mulch the lilies well so that the freezes won’t kill their roots.
Daylilies prefer neutral soil (pH 6.5 -7.0). They grow very well in Virginia clay, but do best in soil heavily amended with compost/manure. Give daylilies at least 18 inches of space to grow. Daylilies, especially the lighter colored ones, bloom best when planted in full sun. Reds and purples tend to slick out in the heat so give them some afternoon shade. Once established, daylilies should be mulched in the summer. They hate hot roots and need the mulch to help retain water so that they will bloom well. When the daylily clump has plants that are all over each other and they produce fewer blooms from one year to the next, it is time to divide. Sometimes, if plants won’t separate easily, you will have to fork them apart or use a shovel or garden knife to cut them apart. Cut the foliage back to 6 – 8 inches and replant as for a bare-rooted plant. Replant them in groups of two or three close to each other and give the rest away.
Foliage, Bloom Habit and Bloom Color
Daylilies have three foliage habits: dormant (DOR.) daylilies die back in the winter; evergreen (EV) daylilies stay green throughout the winter (there are hardy evergreens, but most evergreens prefer the warmer states); and semi-evergreen (SEV) die back when the winter is cold but stay green in warmer climates.
Daylilies also have three blooming habits: diurnal flowers bloom for the day from dawn until dusk; nocturnal flowers bloom from early afternoon until the following morning or afternoon; and extended flowers bloom at least 16 hours – so into the evening. The lilies that bloom into the evening can be used as cut flowers, especially if they have well-developed bud on the scape. Daylily seasons are designated by Extra Early (EE), Early (E), Early Midseason (EM), Midseason (M), Late Midseason (LM), Late (L) and Very Late (VL).(5)
Hybridizers have transformed the species lily into daylilies with a very wide range of colors with good color saturation – red, maroon, gold, yellow, orange, pink, purple, near white, but no “true blue” (lacking purple tones), and no pure white colors have yet been developed. They are picoteed, eyed, striped, edged, ruffled, pleated, sculpted, and more. Normally having three petals and three sepals, daylilies are also double with hose-in-hose, and carnation-types. Some have extra petals and sepals called ‘polymerous’ (8 – 30). There are miniature low daylilies and daylilies over 6 feet tall! Some daylilies rebloom instantly, putting up two sets of scapes and others rest for a few weeks and then rebloom. Many are mildly fragrant. Finally, hybridizers have altered the chromosomes from the diploid with 22, to the tetraploid with 44. The H. fulva is a diploid; ‘Kwanzo’ is a triploid with 33 chromosomes. The “Tets” (tetraploids) have thicker scapes, heavier flowers, and are sturdier-looking plants. They have offered the hybridizer more genes to work with and tend to be more expensive because of the cost involved in converting the good diploid plants to tetraploids. The following photos show some of the many advancements in daylily hybridizing:
Edible to Both Man and Deer
Daylilies are edible and they are used in Asian recipes such as Moo Shu Pork. Having tasted the flowers, I have found that they can be mild or very peppery. Young leaves and roots are also edible. This makes them very vulnerable to deer and voles. Other pests include aphids, spider mites, thrips and slugs. Although daylilies sometimes get “spring sickness,” they usually recover. Otherwise, in our growing zone with hard winters, they are disease-free. A lethal rust has effected them in zones 9, 10 and 11. If you buy daylilies from those areas, it is wise to quarantine them over the winter until the cold has killed the disease. By the way, daylilies are poisonous to cats, but I have never heard of a cat attracted to them.
Because the plants reproduce by increasing the number of fans through cloning, it takes many years for a hybridizer to bring a daylily to market – especially to a large commercial market. There are hundreds of hybridizers who have transformed their production efforts into a business by selling product out of their backyards. Others have turned their efforts into sizable businesses. New hybrids can run in the hundreds of dollars, but, as the years go by, their price comes down and the once-rare daylily will sell for $10.00 – $20.00. The American Hemerocallis Society’s website, daylily.com, can put you in touch with these growers. Local daylily clubs are also a good way to source growers. After a number of years, divided award winners will make their way to large commercial growers. We have several local hybridizers in our area, two of whom are nationally recognized and honored for their efforts – Margo Reed and Jim Murphy. They sell daylilies at their Woodhenge Garden in North Garden, VA. Also, Stardreamer Daylilies, owned by Carol and Dave Sarginger located in Ruckersville, is also a local source for a variety of daylilies. Your local garden center will carry daylilies which are potted in soil. These are from the large commercial growers and are well-proven for performance.
Daylilies are many gardeners’ favorite plants. They are dependable perennials, they are prolific and colorful bloomers, and they are relatively free of pests, with the exception of deer. Daylilies are tolerant of drought and flooding, immune to heat stress, tolerant of most soils and grow well in full sun or light shade.
About the Author:
Claire McIlvain has been a Master Gardener since 2013 and has grown and been a daylily hybridizer for over 25 years. She has also been an active member of the American Hemerocallis Society and Richmond Daylily Society for over 25 years. She also has served as the President of the Charlottesville Daylily Club.
The vendor names herein are provided for information purposes only and no discrimination and endorsement is implied .
“Daylily Basics,” http://counties.agrilife.org/harris/files/2011/05/daylily.pdf
The American Hemerocallis Society, http://www.daylilies.org/
“Daylily: Botany, Propagation, Breeding,” https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/39856/PDF
“Growing Daylilies,” University of Minnesota Extension, https://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/flowers/growing-daylilies/
The New York Botanical Garden, http://sciweb.nybg.org/science2/libr/finding_guide/stoutwb2.asp
“All-American Daylily,” https://garden.org/learn/articles/view/219/
“Introduction to Daylily Hybridizing,” http://www.lasgarden.org/pdf/leila_lovelies/Introduction_to_Daylily_Hybridizing1.pdf
” The Illustrated Guide to Daylilies,” published by the American Hemerocallis Society