Monday, January 4, 2010

A New Endeavor: The New Daylilies!

Well, this title isn’t entirely accurate; it’s hard to find a gardener (at least in the U.S.) who hasn’t grown daylilies, if only the common orange ones (Hemerocallis fulva), and I've grown them too. They can often be found growing in huge stands across the American countryside; and since they are a sterile hybrid that produces no seed whatsoever, they did not seed in, but were planted in deliberately at some time or other. Where you see a lone stand with no surrounding buildings, chances are that there was once a home there. It’s such a vigorous and durable plant that it’s easy to see why it was popular among pioneer gardeners – and why it remains long after every last trace of the home has disappeared.

My mother grew other daylilies in her Iowa City garden – there were some of a deep orange-almost-red shade, and a stand of tall clear yellow ones that, as I remember, had a very sweet pistil that I liked to pluck out and eat. In my Seattle garden I found one dwarf daylily languishing between the walk and the foundation and brought back to life, wondering what it would do. It turned out to be Hemericallis lilioasphodelus, commonly called “Lemon lily,” and with its small but substantial clear yellow blooms and delicious fragrance, it was one of my favorite plants.

Overall however, even though I’d seen some different daylilies in garden catalogs – whites, spiders, even pinks, they always seemed…“common,” for the lack of a better word, or maybe “unconvincing.” The reds seemed muddy, so were the much-hailed pinks…as if, despite their outward difference, they were really just aching to be dusty orange.

On my last trip to Seattle in November though, my old neighbor and fellow garden freak Skot (I'm not a sycophant but I really should be embarrassed to even compare myself to him!) showed me the daylily plants he had been bidding on. “Bidding on?” Yes– it turns out there is a truly devoted group of people who are crazy about daylilies and who are producing new hybrids that are so spectacular they’ll give tall bearded iris a run for their money. He was doing this bidding through the Daylily Exchange. Just the image on their homepage is a hint at what’s to be found within. If you aren’t convinced, check out Bill’s Hemerocallis Page, and particularly the gallery at (Thanks to Bill for generously allowing the use of his images!)

This for example, is no run-of-the-mill daylily!

To be honest, just like the new iris hybrids, the price of many of the newly-released daylily hybrids places them well beyond the reach of the average gardener, but in a year they become last year’s hybrids, and so on, and there are lots of wonderful things to be had for reasonable prices.

There is also the option of growing them from seed. Growing regular lilies (Lilium) from seed is a rather involved process often involving a double stratification, but daylilies are almost as easy as zinnias. People have several different approaches to sowing them but Skot takes his seed and puts it in the freezer for a couple weeks, after which it’s ready to sow whenever he wants. Sowing seed in the fall and growing through the winter under lights can often produce a bloom the first year, though the true character of the bloom will become clearer after the plant is better established. I have several of his seedlings growing in my garden now and have gotten blooms on two - one is a large clear yellow spider and the other is...well, orange, but a much richer and substantial orange than any old fulva and I'll let it keep growing.

An entire jargon has grown up around daylily breeding – UFOs, spiders, watermarks, shark’s teeth… And just as with bearded iris, there are now lots of reblooming daylily hybrids. But here the daylilies have a fascinating twist: the second flush of bloom often exhibits a color shift so striking that it’s hardly recognizable as the same variety. Another surprise in some of the new hybrids is the size; some of the spiders in particular have blooms of up to 15 or more inches across! Many of them are semi-evergreen as well, meaning they continue to provide substance when they are not in bloom in the form of their arching, strap-like leaves.

So if the thought of daylilies still conjures up images of invasive orange things, why not reconsider and try something really new this year? I'm already looking forward to the first blooms on the rest of the plants I planted last year, and knowing I have seed of some very high-falutin' plants here gives me even more to look forward to!

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