Queen for a day

Parshotam Lal Tandon/Flickr

Parshotam Lal Tandon/Flickr

For living proof that you don’t need a green thumb to grow gorgeous flowers, look no farther than the daylily.

Tough as nails, it can outlast brutal heat and drought, stand up to soggy weather and survive the neglect of forgetful gardeners. In the dog days of summer, when other plants begin to flag, it renews itself daily with yet another burst of glamorous blossoms. What’s not to like about a plant that can basically take care of itself?

Few would fail to recognize the original and most familiar kind, the tawny orange daylily that every summer fills roadside ditches, pops up in neglected city lots and marks the site of long-gone farm buildings.

 Its nicknames include “outhouse lily” and “wash-house lily,” indicating where it commonly grew and stubbornly persisted even after flush toilets and washing machines caught on. When I was a kid we wrongly called these flowers tiger lilies, probably because thrusting a nose deep into the orange trumpets would paint our faces with pollen whiskers.

 In fact, the daylily is not a lily at all, but a member of an entirely different genus, Hemerocallis, from the Greek words for day (hemera) and beauty (kallos). Each flower lasts just 24 hours, but a profusion of buds guarantees weeks of bloom.  

The common orange daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, and an equally prosaic yellow variety, Hemerocallis flava (both from China) were the chief varieties known through the 18th and 19th centuries. But starting in the 1930s, when the United States took the daylily lead, things rapidly grew more interesting.

Because hybrid daylilies are easily produced, creating new varieties became something of a cottage industry. The American Hemerocallis Society (AHS), founded in 1946, took charge of registering new cultivars and presenting awards to the best introductions. By 1975, some 15,000 hybrids were on the books.

Then, with a chemical process that manipulated the plant at the cellular level, doubling its chromosomes, breeders had new ways to tweak traits such as color, size, bloom cycle and foliage characteristics. Breeding expanded yet again, and in the last 30 years or so the cultivar count has climbed to around 60,000. That means the choices are all but endless and everyone can find a daylily to love.

Daylilies can anchor a perennial border through summer’s hottest days, serve as a weed-free groundcover or prevent erosion on a steep slope. Full sun and a shot of slow-release fertilizer in spring will promote the heaviest bloom, but daylilies aren’t fussy and can get by with part sun and little care.  

Kay Schlumpf/Flickr

Kay Schlumpf/Flickr

Although seldom bothered by insects or disease, daylilies do have one Achilles heel: Deer love them, too. You can spray them with deer repellent to discourage munching. If that fails, daylilies are best grown behind sturdy fencing, mingling with other stars of the midsummer garden like electric blue globe thistle, spiky salvias or purple butterfly bush.

It’s hard to talk about daylilies without mentioning two outstanding hybridizers who helped put New Jersey on the map. Betty Harwood, who died in 2011, and Darrel Apps , now retired, produced distinctive varieties are still highly sought after.

Harwood was a founder of the Garden State Daylily Growers, the state’s first daylily club affiliated with the AHS (daylilies.org). Starting in 1990 and continuing for nearly 15 years, Harwood had annual open houses and auctions at her Farmingdale property.

Before selling her farm in 2006, Harwood donated more than 500 daylilies for plantings at Ellis Island to honor her immigrant parents, Samuel and Rose Goodman.   Harwood’s top hybrids include ‘Laura Harwood,’ a rich burgundy, and ‘Twirling Parasols,’ a creamy flower with unusual twisted petals.

Darrel Apps has an even wider reputation, ranking among the top daylily hybridizers in the country. In 2007 he sold his Woodside farm in Bridgeton to BlewLine Nursery, which continues to market his daylilies, old and new.

Apps is especially known for breeding plants that extend the blooming season. His Happily Ever Appster series of reblooming daylilies include the popular ‘Happy Returns.’ A new series called Jersey Earlybird was introduced in 2010 with the bright red ‘Cardinal,’ which starts flowering in late May and continues through the summer.

Innovation shapes the daylily’s future, but reliability is its strong suit. If you want rewards without much effort, this plant’s for you.