In the Garden: Only 80,000 Varieties?

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Daylilies

Canna Lily.  Easter Lily.  Rain Lily.  Daylily.  Surprise Lily.  Calla Lily.  Trout Lily.  You might think there are a lot of lilies out there, but in actuality only one of these is a “true lily,” the Easter Lily, Lilium longiflorum. The rest are all pretenders, related to the true lilies to varying extents, but freely borrowing their good name. Regardless of terminology, most gardeners, and even people that just drive down the road, are familiar with one genus in particular, Hemerocallis, the daylily.

Native to East Asia, daylilies have long been appreciated in that part of the world for both culinary and medicinal properties. The name derives from the Greek words for “day” and “beautiful,” since a daylily flower lasts only a single day. (You occasionally see the plant referred to as Day Lily, but the single word is the correct name.) Despite each flower only lasting one day, several buds on the same plant open in succession, yielding a bloom period of one to five weeks.  Plants that are classified as rebloomers will have a second bloom period later in the season; everbloomers can flower for most of the summer.

Most of the roughly 15 species of daylilies are rarely seen in cultivation any longer, being superseded by hybrids. You can still see one species, Hymenocallis fulva, known as tawny or orange daylily but more commonly called ditch lily, as a widespread escape from gardens.  Presumably no one actually pays money for it anymore, but the lowly ditch lily has served as the parent in many hybrid crosses.  And these hybrids are now the mainstay of the daylily world with about 89,000(!) registered varieties.  Several hundred additional varieties are named every year, so you should be able to find a daylily that suits your taste. Unless you want either pure white or true blue, that is. Breeders have yet to break the code on those. And color is not the only factor when choosing daylilies. Height—with flower scapes ranging up to five feet tall—ruffled edges on blooms, fragrance, resistance to bleaching from sunshine, petal shape, and flowering season can all influence your selection.

With 89,000 varieties out there, it’s fair to say that nobody sells all of them. Most garden centers and big box stores will have only a few, often concentrating on the everbloomers like ‘Stella D’Oro’ that are showy for a longer period, while some nurseries may carry several dozen cultivars. Mail order will open up many more possibilities for purchasing. A simple online search led me to Smokey’s Gardens, a Michigan nursery that grows three thousand daylily varieties. Prices range from a little over a dollar a plant when in ordered in bulk, to over $100 for those in limited supply.

If you’re looking for unusual daylilies, specialty breeders are your best bet. Since it’s relatively simple to hybridize daylilies, small operations are always coming up with new offerings. I searched the website of the American Daylily Society for daylily gardens within fifty miles of Charlottesville and found Woodhenge Gardens, located on Plank Road south of North Garden. Run by Jim Murphy and Margo Reed, their website currently lists over 300 varieties, although several are currently sold out.  That said, just scanning their offerings is worthwhile, with beautiful photographs of daylily flowers in colors and shapes that I hadn’t known existed.

I contacted Woodhenge, and they were kind enough to provide me a very detailed response to my questions. They are open to visitors by appointment, preferably on weekends, and with social distancing.  There’s no need to buy, but visiting would provide one an opportunity to see a plant in bloom, then order it for fall delivery.

Daylilies are generally considered to be long-lived, easy-care plants. Full sun is best for most varieties, although those with darker flowers appreciate some high afternoon shade. Clumps will quickly get larger and have even more flowers.  After a few years they can be dug up and divided, preferably in early fall. 

With reblooming daylilies, trimming off the spent scapes can encourage a second bloom. A pretty tedious procedure can be sped up by simply shearing the entire plant back to about 3” to 6”. Give it a dose of water and dilute plant food, and new foliage will flush out. The plant will look better, even it’s not a rebloomer.

Ordinary garden soil is okay, providing it has some organic matter and is well-drained. When planting a potted daylily, just loosen up the roots and place it in the hole at the same level as the ground. With a bare-root daylily, build a cone of soil in the bottom of the hole, then spread the roots over it.  Replace the soil, just covering the crown where the roots meet the leaves. In either case, water thoroughly immediately after planting. Afterwards, water once or twice a week if rain is not sufficient.

Daylilies may be affected by a variety of pests and diseases. I found good information on this by Googling “rust on daylilies”; my top hit was a blog from Smokey’s Gardens. You may or may not want to follow their advice on chemical treatments.

Deer may well be the worst pest of daylilies. They love the flowers, and a daylily without flowers isn’t very interesting. I can only advise you to try the usual deer deterrents, including a very tall fence.

A warning on daylilies if you have cats, or even if your neighbor’s cats frequent your garden: All parts of the plant are highly toxic to cats, including pollen they might lick off their fur, or even water they could drink from a vase.  

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