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A Deeper Look at Daylilies

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By Jeff Rugg- The botanical name for daylilies is Hemerocallis. It comes from two Greek words: Hemera is day, and kallos is beauty. The beauty of a daylily flower does last only one day.

Thankfully, a mature plant may have over a hundred flowers. Daylilies come in a variety of sizes, colors and shapes.

The smallest daylilies are under a foot tall, and the largest can be nearly 5 feet tall. A miniature daylily has flowers smaller than 3 inches across, but the plant may be any height. Large daylilies have flowers bigger than four-and-a-quarter inches across and can be carried on plants of any height.

The original daylilies came in a few shades of yellowish orange. They now come in practically every shade of yellow, orange, red, purple and pink; they are getting close to pure white as well. Many have more than one color. When the center of the flower is a lighter color, it is called a watermark. If it is lighter outside, it is a halo; if only the outside edge of the flower is lighter, it is called a wire edge. A dark color in the center is called the eye zone.

Daylilies are in the true lily family and have the same flower design: Three outer sepals surround three inner petals. They all open up to form the flower. Sometimes the flowers are trumpet-shaped, and sometimes they’re circular. When the petals and sepals are long and narrow, the flower shape is called a spider. If you have extra flowers, you can dip some unopened ones in your favorite batter recipe, fry them until golden brown and serve them at dinner.

Hybridizing daylilies is an easy process, and so far, there are around 40,000 named varieties! A serious collector would have only a drop in the bucket if they had 1,000 varieties in their yard.

When visiting a garden center to look for your garden plants, start with the following characteristics: First, look at the foliage. They are not blooming for longer than they are in bloom, so the leaves should look dark green and thick. The more fans of leaves it has, the more flower stalks it will produce.

Second, the more buds there are, the longer the blooming season. Some daylilies only bloom in the early summer, others in mid-season, and some during late winter or even almost all winter long in the Deep South. A few varieties are “ever-blooming,” such as Stella de Oro, and they do last almost the whole season. A few varieties rebloom once or twice during the season, but not with as many buds as the first time.

It is best to judge daylily flowers in the heat of the afternoon sun. Some flowers begin to fade and melt away in the sun’s heat. Since the flower only lasts one day, it should have enough substance to make it through that day.
Daylilies can have two sets of chromosomes in each cell nucleus, or they can have four sets. The tetraploids have four sets and are favored by many breeders who look at the extra genetic material as a source of new colors, shapes and sizes. Tets, as they are called, tend to have larger and thicker leaves and flowers. Tet flowers have enough substance to make it through the day, but so do many other daylilies.

Daylilies can be planted in just about any soil type and at any sunlight level. The heaviest shade will not produce as many flowers. I have two plants of the same variety; one is along a sunny, south-facing wall, and the other is in the shade of a silver maple. The sunny one blooms at least one month earlier than the shady one. They perform better if the soil has lots of loose organic matter and stays moist. They are pretty drought tolerant once established but bloom better if mulched and watered. They also often bloom better if they are divided after about four years in the ground. Early fall is the best time to do this, so think of it as a job to do right after the kids go back to school.

They look nice when planted with ornamental grasses because the two plants have similar leaf and plant shapes. They also look nice when planted with other plants that have contrasting foliage shapes, like the broad-leafed hostas or the fine, dense foliage of Coreopsis verticillata. They send up leaves just as the daffodils finish flowering, so they hide the daffodil foliage as it dies, making them excellent companion plants.

Daylilies are easy to grow for a beginner and fun to hybridize for an advanced gardener. They are low maintenance and have very few insect or disease problems. Every garden should have at least a few — or is that a few hundred? — varieties.

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