Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I am definitely a novice when it comes to daylilies. Growing up, they were on my mom's "do not plant" list, so we never had them in our yard, and I never dared to plant any. She disliked them because the ones she knew only bloomed once, she didn't think the tall foliage was particularly attractive, and they tended to overtake areas. I was usually treading on thin ice with my mom in terms of my garden, usually because the borders were mysteriously creeping outwards. If I planted daylilies I knew she'd notice, and probably notice a bunch of other stuff she wouldn't like as well. So one good way to fly below mom's radar, at least temporarily, was to not plant daylilies.
Since I have my own home now, I am free to plant daylilies, and most anything else without worry about my mom's radar. Of course, now I have my husband's radar to contend with, but that's a story for another column. He has described me as a plant addict—I explained it's hard not to be when you're surrounded by Master Gardener volunteers that act as enablers, encouraging my latest plant "fix". He was not amused.
Until recently, my only experience with daylilies was the orange "ditch lilies" my neighbors had back home. Every couple of years they would thin them out, and leave a big pile of the thinned plants at the end of their driveway with a big sign that said "free". Sometimes someone would take a few, many times they would sit and sit and dry up in the summer heat.
Daylilies are not native to North American roadsides, despite seeing them dotting the countryside each summer. They are native to Asia, specifically Japan, Korea, Siberia, China, and Eurasia. The Chinese tradition of using the daylily for food and medicine began before they even had a written language. They ate the buds and flowers of the plant, and used the crown and roots of the plant as medicine, particularly as a pain reliever, and treatment of liver disorders.
It wasn't until 1753 that daylilies were given their genus name of Hemerocallis by the great naturalist Linnaeus. The name Hemerocallis comes from two Greek words meaning "beauty" and "day", in reference to the fact that each individual flower on a daylily plant lasts for only one day.
Wild species of daylily occur in a limited range of colors, typically yellows, oranges, and a few reds. They are also self-incompatible; meaning that pollen from a plant cannot successfully pollinate and set seed on flowers from the same plant. The man credited with revolutionizing the world of daylilies, Dr. Arlow Burdette Stout, noted this phenomenon as a boy exploring his mother's garden. He was always fascinated that the daylilies never set seed.
This fascination fueled his career as a researcher and educator with the New York Botanical Garden beginning in 1911. The focus of his research was the nature and genetics of self-incompatibility in flowering plants. From day one he began experimenting with daylilies, which he is remembered for still today. But he also contributed greatly to the development of seedless grapes, and investigated flowering irregularities in avocado which led to vast improvements in field production.
For over thirty years following his hiring in 1911, Dr. Stout performed upwards of 50,000 crosses of various daylily species at the NY Botanical Gardens. Finally in the 1930's he selected 100 hybrids from these crosses that caught the public's eye and revolutionized the world of daylilies. The Head Curator of the Botanical Garden realized the commercial value of Dr. Stout's daylilies, and commented that their value would certainly exceed that of the entire Botanical Garden. Few would argue his prediction came true several times over.
Dr. Stout published over 300 writings about daylilies during his career. He was a popular lecturer, and his news about daylilies was even featured on radio broadcasts. He forged relationships with large nurseries who agreed to field test the daylilies he had bred. He loved experimenting with daylilies, but wanted the hybrids to have practical use in gardens. In his mind he was not only an experimenter and scientist, but a gardener in the most direct sense of the word.
In 1950, the American Hemerocallis Society established the Stout Award, a distinctive recognition reserved only for those judged as the best new Hemerocallis hybrids. Unfortunately, Dr. Stout passed away after a long illness in 1957 at the age of 81 before he could finish his last writings on the evolution of Hemerocallis. Wouldn't he be surprised if he could see daylilies today?
Today's daylilies are a far cry from their wild ancestors. There are few colors that are not found in daylilies. Currently, the only colors missing from the daylily palette are pure white and pure blue. Needless to say, this is the holy grail of daylily breeding that scores of hybridizers dream of while making thousands of daylily crosses.
Until then, we can fill our gardens to overflowing with the literally thousands of daylily hybrids available. Variations in flower color, patterns, form, and bloom time, as well as foliage height and color make choosing only a few daylilies a challenge.
Daylilies are a great choice for a low-maintenance landscape for many reasons besides the wide variety available. They are very drought tolerant, due to an extensive root system. They can also adapt to a wide range of soil types, even the awful clay-laden soil many of us contend with in Illinois. They are affected by relatively few diseases and insect pests. Not many plants fit all of these criteria. If you haven't planted daylilies before, give them a try. If you have daylilies already, there's always room for a new one that catches your eye (that's my inner plant addict talking!) For more information on daylilies, check out the American Hemerocallis Society at: www.daylilies.org or the Central Illinois Daylily Society at www.daylilyeyecandy.org.