One day at a time

The fully evolved modern daylily ‘Joylene Nicole.’ — Princes Milady/Creative Commons

The fully evolved modern daylily ‘Joylene Nicole.’ — Princes Milady/Creative Commons

High summer is daylily time, and these sturdy perennials with the trumpet-shaped flowers seem to be everywhere - along residential driveways, in flower borders, massed in plantings at shopping malls and growing wild in vacant lots.

Actually, my early encounters with the common orange daylily ( Hemerocallis fulva) were unknowingly fraught with confusion. When I was a kid we called these tiger lilies - probably because when you jammed your face into their orange flowers, your nose came away with a set of pollen "whiskers."

By now, I can easily identify the true old-fashioned tiger lily ( Lilium tigrinum ), especially since I inherited quite a few of them at my present place and they have become old friends. Tiger lilies are true lilies that grow from a bulb - sprouting 4, 5 and even 6 feet tall; they have short, spiky leaves, like the familiar Easter lily's, that jut stiffly from the towering stem.

Daylilies, on the other hand, create a mound of rushy leaves rarely exceeding 30 inches and grow from fibrous roots that in some cases may be enlarged and tuberous. They form handsome, weed-free clumps that are attractive even when the plants aren't blooming.

Getting back to this plant's botanical name, "Hemerocallis" is derived from the Greek words that mean "beauty" and "day." It is true that the blossoms individually are beautiful only for a day and then die, but there are many buds on each flower stalk, or scape, so the plants do flower for a period of weeks.

Daylilies have undergone intensive hybridization in the last 15 years or so, and where once there were just a few types, now there are thousands of named varieties.

The blooms come in shades of red, purple, orange and yellow, both in solid colors and blends. They can be star-shaped or sport thin, spidery petals, have ruffled margins or recurved petals that flare backward toward the stem. The flowers have incredible substance, the flower tissue being thick and dense. You look at some and wonder why they aren't heavier for their size.

Hybridizers have not produced daylily flowers in blue - which is just as well, since that offers opportunities to combine their bold, brassy blossoms with true-blue flowers of other species like delphiniums, salvias and ornamental thistles. Neither have growers come up with a pure white, although creamy, dreamy daylilies like 'Gentle Shepherd' and 'Vanilla Fluff' come close.

The original “tiger lily” or “ditch lily.” - Princes Milday/Creative Commons

The original “tiger lily” or “ditch lily.” - Princes Milday/Creative Commons

Two drawbacks to these plants: The first is that deer love them. It can be hard to grow daylilies in many places because deer make a beeline for them and eat them to the ground.

The other downside is that spent blossoms don't drop in the manner of some self-cleaning plants. The shriveled up pods go brown and rot right there next to the remaining flowers, looking unsightly until they are picked off by hand.

I know - complaints, complaints. It's really hard to carp about a plant so accommodating, so easy to grow, so adaptable and drought-resistant. This summer, I've gotten around to see newly acquired daylilies in the gardens of my friends, friends who are prepared to insist ("You have to stop by") when something especially cool is blooming.

My personal opinion is that the dark reds and the paler colors - the yellows, melons and creams - are the most effective. Too many of the purple or pink types I've grown have turned out to be an undistinguished, washed-out mauve that doesn't show particularly well at a distance or in the shade. Just an opinion.

And just for fun, a couple of quick daylily facts:

  • All daylily flowers last a single day, but all are not created equal. There are three types: the diurnal, or day-blooming lilies; the nocturnal varieties that open in late afternoon, remain open at night and close the following morning and the extended kind, which stay open for 16 hours or more.

  • If you're not pleased with the flowering qualities of your daylilies, you can eat them. The fleshy roots are edible and supposedly similar to water chestnut; the unopened flower buds are dried and sold in Chinese markets as an ingredient in hot-and-sour soup.

  • Daylilies follow the sun through the day like sunflowers and daffodils do. If you don't want your daylily flowers turning their backs to you, plant them on the north side of the path or border - they will generally face south, following the sun's path from southeast to southwest.

  • Serious aficionados rally 'round the daylily at the American Daylily Society, where you will find growing information, word of shows and other events, and galleries featuring the most popular varieties.

  • Daylily Day takes place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 29 at Deep Cut Gardens, Middletown. Enjoy the large selection of daylilies on the grounds and meet with expert flower growers. Presented with Garden State Daylily Growers. Admission and parking are free.