By Amanda Sessel Legare
The first perennial I ever planted was a daylily. I was a small fruit and vegetable farmer and didn’t have a clue about perennials. Now I grow more than 80 cultivars of daylilies. Today they come in every color except true blue and in an extraordinary assortment of shapes, sizes and color combinations. They can go from miniatures with blooms under three inches to those with flowers that measure seven inches across or more on stalks 10 inches to five feet tall.
Daylilies are among the easiest to grow of all perennials. They have received a bad rap because some people are only familiar with “fulva”, the “ditch lily”. This is the common orange daylily that can grow practically anywhere and will crowd out its more elegant hybrid relatives.
Beginning in the 1950s, daylily breeders began to cross-pollinate the flowers, trying to enhance certain characteristics including clearer colors, ruffled flowers and interesting bloom markings such as edgings and “eyes.”
Doubles, spiders and UFO’s (“unusual forms”) are now commonplace. Today there are more than more than 80,000 registered daylilies and it is not unusual for new introductions showing significant advances in breeding to go for more than $200 each.
The most I ever paid for a daylily was $45 years ago for “Lavender Blue Baby.” Back then, any cultivar promising blue tones was the rage. A true blue daylily would still be the holy grail for daylily breeders. Advances have been made and you can find “Lavender Blue Baby” for a LOT less now.
Daylilies do best for me in full sun and normal to moist soil. I plant them about two feet apart. Typically, they will benefit from division in 4-5 years. Daylilies are clumping perennials with fibrous roots. They are not true lilies. I often see instructions for dividing daylilies using two spade forks. In the first place, how many of us own one, let alone TWO of these implements? And secondly, it must be a terribly awkward procedure. Here we dig up the plant and divide with a sharp serrated knife, pulling gently until the roots fall apart. This is best done in the early spring or late summer.
Daylilies are members of the genus hemerocallis, which is derived from two Greek words meaning “beauty” and “day”. This refers to the fact that each flower lasts only one day. To make up for this, there are many flower buds on each daylily flower stalk, and many stalks in each clump of plants, so the flowering period of a clump is usually several weeks long. Bloom time extends from early to late summer.
Like most great groups of plants, daylilies have their own “society,” a well-organized group of enthusiasts, growers, and hybridizers, who specialize in this plant. The American Hemerocallis Society (AHS) has an excellent fact-filled website. This is where the current 83,000+ daylily hybrids are registered.
Once a named daylily is registered that name cannot be used again, so some of the breeders get very creative naming their new introductions. “Bullfrog Smooch”, “Shark Attack”, and “Me So Happy” are a few of the more recent names. Then there are names that are not exactly turn-ons: “Varicose Veins”, “Nekkid Woman on a Tractor”, and “Butt Ugly”. I am not making these up!
For many reasons, photographs of daylilies can be misleading. If possible, your best bet is to go to a nursery when they are blooming to see the true colors. If you’re looking for a low-maintenance per-ennial with loads of blooms, the daylily is a “sure thing.”
•Amanda Sessel Legare operates Amanda’s Greenhouses and Perennials in Cabot, where she has field-dug perennials and four greenhouses. www.amandasgreenhouse.com