When asked to suggest just one perennial for a beginning gardener to start with, my answer is always the same — daylily. No other perennial is easier to grow and comes in so many different colors, patterns, forms, and sizes. June is prime daylily time.
The big reason we have so many daylilies is that no perennial I know of is as easy to hybridize to make a new one. Any beginner can do it. All you have to do is:
1. Pinch out a yellow-tipped stamen from one flower and rub its yellow pollen onto the end of the long, cream-colored pistil in the center of another flower.
2. After the flower drops, a seed pod forms. Wait until the pod matures and turns brown, then pick and open it. You’ll find shiny, black seeds inside. Place these inside a plastic, ziplock bag filled with moist potting soil, seal the bag, and store it in the fridge for at least three months.
3. Then remove the seeds and sow them about a half-inch deep in pots. They’ll germinate rather quickly. In about the third year, they’ll be big enough to flower and you’ll see whether your trouble was worth it.
The Daylily That Started It All
Practically everyone who has traveled country roads has seen sweeps of Hemerocallis fulva colonizing banks and filling drainage ditches. Native to China and Japan, this is the old-fashioned orange daylily aka ditch lily. To me, its blooming signals the start of summer. People either love it or hate it, because it spreads aggressively by rhizomes. It’s great when planted in a spot like that shown above, where it can basically take over. But never add it to a bed of tame perennials or it will eat them for lunch.
Fortunately for home gardeners, hybridizers have crossed many different species to breed out the aggression and add lots and lots and lots of new colors. Daylily hybrids form slowly expanding clumps that are easy to control. They’re also easy to divide — just dig up a clump in late summer, fall, or early spring, shake off the soil, and use your hands to gently pull apart individual plants. I’ve made 10 plants from one this way. This lessens the sting of paying $10-$15 for the original plant.
What’s In A Name?
A daylily is called that because most individual flowers last but a day. However, flower stalks can produce numerous flower buds and one plant can produce numerous flower stalks, so flowering usually lasts several weeks. Reblooming daylilies, such as my favorite yellow, ‘Happy Returns,’ bloom off-and-on all summer.
How to Grow Daylilies
Here comes that word “easy” again. Easy. All daylilies need is full to part sun and fertile, moist soil. They’ll tolerate drought, but bloom better if watered in summer when it’s dry. If your soil is good, fertilizing really isn’t necessary.
One problem you should watch out for is a fungal disease called daylily rust. It’s thought to have first gotten a foothold in Florida among evergreen daylilies (those bred to have foliage all winter) and then spread as infected daylilies were shipped elsewhere. Rust appears as orange and brown pustules the cover the leaves. Flowers are distorted.
But don’t swallow that cyanide capsule just yet. Most incidences of daylily rust that I’ve seen are in gardens of collectors who have hundreds of different selections they’ve bought from all over. If you have just five or ten plants, you’re unlikely to see rust. The best way to prevent it is to closely inspect your plants when you buy and then again when they first sprout foliage in spring. If you see infected leaves, remove them and throw them out with the trash. Then spray your plants according to label directions with a fungicide called Daconil. You may also want to remove and discard all daylily foliage in late winter to get rid of overwintering rust spores.
Now For The Pretty Stuff
You can buy hybrid daylilies at most garden centers. One of the best mail-order suppliers I know is Oakes Daylilies in Corryton, Tennessee. They sell hundreds of beautiful selections. Here are a few photos I shamelessly stole from their website, along with their descriptions.
‘Pandora’s Box’ — 4-inch bloom, 19 inches tall, early-midseason, reblooming.
‘Happy Returns’ — 3-inch bloom, 18 inches tall, early, fragrant, reblooming.
‘Frankly Scarlet’ — 4-inch bloom, 24 inches tall, early-midseason, reblooming.
‘Barbara Mitchell’ — 6-inch bloom, 20 inches tall, midseason, reblooming.
‘Blushing Summer Valentine’ — 5-inch bloom, 24 inches tall, early, reblooming.
‘Buttered Popcorn’ — 6-inch bloom, 32 inches tall, mid-late season, reblooming.
‘Chicago Arnie’s Choice’ — 5-inch bloom, 28 inches tall, midseason.