|By Rich Rosen
aylilies (Hemerocallis) have been called America’s favorite perennial because of their carefree garden beauty. Unfortunately, when many people think of daylilies they think of little yellow `Stella de Oro’ or the orange “ditch lily” that is common up north. Few people are familiar with the broad range of sizes, forms, colors and stunning patterns found in the modern daylily.
There are more than 55,000 named daylily cultivars, ranging in diameter from the size of a 50 cent piece to the size of a dinner plate, though typical size is 4 to 5 inches. Some cultivars bloom just a foot above the ground, and others reach over your head, with average height about 24 to 28 inches. Typical daylily form is a round open face with six petal segments. But one can also find long, narrow spider forms, twisting and turning unusual forms, and double forms that look like pom-poms. But it is the color patterns that really draw you into a fascination with daylilies that can border on addiction. On one end of the spectrum are soft pastel creams, peach, pinks and lavenders. On the other end are dark reds and purples that border on black. And in between are vibrant purples, reds, yellows, oranges and hot pinks. Just about every color is available except true blue and uniform green. Now imagine these colors put together with contrasting midribs, veins, throats, eyes and ruffled edges, and you can start to appreciate the jaw-dropping beauty of daylilies. One of the latest advances in daylily breeding is metallic gold edges that actually glisten in the sunlight, unlike any other flower I know. I think a fair comparison is to the diverse beauty of orchids, but on plants that you can easily grow in your garden with no need for winter protection.
Where do all these different forms and colors come from? Well, daylilies are native to eastern Asia where they were used for food, medicine and garden color. Manuscripts from 2700 B.C. are the first written records of daylilies. They were introduced to Europe in the 1500s, and subsequently to America in the 1800s. It was here in the United States, in the 1920s, that Arlow Burdette Stout, director of the New York Botanical Garden, began breeding the native daylilies to create modern hybrids. Today, new cultivars are being created by hundreds of individual hybridizers, primarily in the United States. Some hybridizers, like Jack Carpenter in Center, Texas, operate on a grand scale with acres of daylilies. But many are created by hobbyist hybridizers working in their own back yards. The result is a genus that is expanding in beautiful new directions each year.
Daylilies grow from fleshy roots below ground with fans of leaves above ground, coming together at the crown of the plant. From the crown, flower stalks (scapes) will emerge in May and June, bearing typically 10 to 20 flower buds. Though each flower is only open for one day (thus the name), the buds will take turns opening, resulting in weeks of garden color. And many cultivars send up repeat scapes into June, July and August.
Over time, new daylily fans will emerge from the crown, forming clumps. These clumps can be divided and moved to other parts of your yard, or shared and traded with friends. In Texas, a good time for dividing and planting daylilies is early spring, and again in the fall. Plant them in a mostly sunny location. Some shade is just fine, but dense shade will stunt growth and flower production. Use a soil mixture that allows drainage but also retains moisture. Most any good garden soil will work for daylilies. But for the past several years, I have been using a soil mixture of 4 parts ground pine bark, 2 parts peat moss, and 1 part sand, and have seen excellent results in my garden. Plant them so the crown is just slightly above ground level, and allow a 16- to 20-inch spacing.
Fertilize in early spring and again about 6 weeks later with a high nitrogen fertilizer, such as 15-5-5. Organic growers can use a natural fertilizer with a comparable ratio. Nitrogen tends to leach from the soil with watering and rain, and needs to be replenished, whereas phosphorus and potassium tends to bind to the soil particles and remain available to your plants for a longer time. In those parts of Texas with alkaline soil and water, add some granular sulfur to help keep your soil close to a neutral pH. And if you want to give your daylilies a special treat, add some alfalfa pellets to the soil. Alfalfa contains a growth hormone called tricontinol that gives your plants a little extra boost. Water a couple times a week, either late in the evening or early in the morning to prevent stagnant water from sitting in the fans during the heat of the day, which can cause rot. Mulching between plants is a good idea for moisture retention and weed control, but keep the mulch a few inches away from the base of the plants.
As much as you might like daylilies, deer like them even more — to eat, that is. So plant them where deer can’t reach them, for instance inside a tall fence. Aphids and thrips can be a problem for any garden plant. On daylilies, they seem to be at their worst in the winter when they hunker down at the base of the leaves. Use an insecticide or organic spray early in the season, and you should be OK the rest of the year. During warm weather, spider mites affect daylilies along with most everything else in your garden. Effective miticides are expensive and really not necessary. A strong blast of water to the underside of the foliage twice a week will keep spider mites under control. During periods of extended high humidity, be on the lookout for small orange spots on the foliage, which indiactes a fungal disease called rust. Rust can be unsightly, but will not kill the plant. Treat rust with a fungicide, or trim off the offending foliage.
There are a few things to understand when shopping for daylilies. First, daylilies are classified as evergreen, semi-evergreen or dormant, and this information should be provided by your source. Evergreen and semi-evergreen daylilies will grow fine all across Texas. But dormant cultivars are better suited for colder climates. If you garden in Central, South or Coastal Texas, avoid the dormant daylilies. Unfortunately, local nurseries sometimes carry dormant varieties in areas where they are not well suited. So make sure you know what you are buying. One good place to buy daylilies is from a local daylily club. Another is to order from a specialty daylily nursery. Plants will arrive bare root in the mail. With their fleshy roots, they can survive up to two weeks this way, if they are kept dry and cool. I recommend ordering from a southern nursery, and there are three good ones in Texas (see “Sources”).
If you want specific cultivar recommendations, a good place to look is the American Hemerocallis Society (AHS) Popularity Poll. AHS has about 10,000 members, with about 600 members in the Texas/New Mexico region. Each year, members get to vote for their 10 favorite daylilies. For 2008, the five most popular daylilies for Texas/New Mexico are:
‘Red Volunteer’ A 7-inch clear red flower with a gold throat, on a 30-inch scape. Hybridized by William Oakes of Tennessee in 1984.
‘Orange Velvet’ A 6-1/2-inch light orange flower with a green throat, on a 30-inch scape. Hybridized by Enman Joiner of Georgia in 1988.
‘Jason Salter’ A 2-3/4-inch soft yellow flower with a washed lavender/purple eyezone and green throat, on an 18-inch scape. Hybridized by Elizabeth Salter of Florida in 1987.
‘Wind Frills’ A 7-inch soft pink open form flower with a large yellow/green throat, on a 34-inch scape. Hybridized by Inez Tarrant of Texas in 1978.
‘Elizabeth Salter’ A 5-1/2-inch salmon pink flower with a green throat, on a 22-inch scape. Hybridized by Jeff Salter of Florida in 1990.
Additional information on daylilies can be found at the American Hemerocallis Society website at www.daylilies.org, or by joining a local daylily club. A list of local clubs in Texas, with contact information, can be found at www.ahsregion6.org/clubs.htm. Local clubs often have flower shows, plant sales and garden tours, where you can see which cultivars appeal to you and different ways to garden with them. Some gardeners grow daylilies almost exclusively, whereas others mix them in with a variety of other perennials.
This year, Texas daylily growers will be showing off their gardens to the world. Several Houston clubs are working together to host the AHS National Convention. About 600 daylily fanatics will convene May 14-17 for two days of bus tours, plus clinics, programs and banquets.
If you are interested in attending, please contact Mary Gage at (281) 351-8827.