Daylily Delights

Credit: Erikson Daylilies

On the other hand, daylilies, or Hemerocallis as they are known botanically, are superb plants for water-wise gardening. And there are so many cultivars to choose from – The Royal Horticultural Society 2003-2004 Plant Finder lists just short of a thousand, while the A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants tells us Hemerocallis is a genus of about 13 to 15 species from which remarkably more than 30,000 cultivars have been raised.

Hemerocallis, of course, belongs to the family Liliaceae. The plants feature rather attractive, curved, typical monocot sword-like foliage, which when it first appears in early spring, is generally a glowing eye-catching chartreuse. On the coast Hemerocallis leaves can appear as early as late February in sheltered spots, but in interior and northern gardens, they would more likely make their first appearance in April. And luckily for our northern gardeners, this genus of plants tends to be very hardy, with most of the varieties thriving in zones 2 to 10.

The flowering time of the trumpet-shaped blooms, as well as the rounder “bagel” or elongated-petal “spider”-shaped blooms of some of the newer cultivars, varies, ranging from spring to fall. The individual flowers typically bloom for only a day (hence the common name daylily), but the plants continue to produce more buds, allowing them to bloom repeatedly over the course of several weeks.

Daylilies tend to prefer well-drained soil in full sun. Like all perennials, at planting time they appreciate some well-rotted manure added to the infill soil of each planting hole, but once established, they can do well in even the poorest of soil.

Of the various species and thousands of cultivars available, I’d like to share a few of my own favourites. Here at UBC Botanical Garden we have a lovely species, Hemerocallis forrestii, which as the name suggests, was probably first collected by George Forrest, the famous Scottish plant hunter of the early 1900s. It has the most beautiful orange/yellow flowers in early summer, borne in racemes on strong 30-45 cm (12-18 in.) stems. The foliage is quite a good dark green and the leaves themselves are almost twice the length of the flower stems, but they bend so low to the ground that they don’t hide the flowers. I like this one because it does well in open sunny glades in our Asian Garden, which has many tall cedars and other native conifers. I have noticed, however, that the Hemerocallis plants that get less than half a day’s sun are not flowering, and while some of the newer cultivars apparently will bloom so long as they receive three hours of sunlight per day, the rule of thumb is the more sun, the more blooms.

Those who know me will be aware of my fondness for old-fashioned flowers. And the one daylily I would grow if I had a large garden would be Hemerocallis citrina, which as the name suggests, has a fresh citrusy fragrance. It comes to us from China, and has delightful pale lemon-yellow flowers that open at night. These blooms feature narrow finger-width tepals, each tinged with a brown stripe behind, again in racemes and carried on 9-12 cm (3.5-5 in.) stems.

Because of its delicate evening scent, this daylily is a perfect choice for planting near the edge of a south-facing patio where the soft perfume can waft across on warm summer evenings. And the enchanting blooms will welcome you first thing in the morning, too.

I must also mention the most common daylily, the orange-flowered Hemerocallis fulva. Its origin is uncertain, but it is believed to be from Japan. Although considered by some to be quite weedy as it spreads by rhizomes, it is a perfect candidate for a hot sunny bank where its summer blossoms will arch to face you like a great natural bouquet.

The leaves of this one are quite strong and long, 70 cm (28 in.) or longer. The flower stems are also strong and erect, taller than the foliage and forked at the top into two racemes that bear 10 to 20 flowers over six weeks or so. Each bloom is 7-10 cm (3-4 in.) in length and funnel shaped, with orange tepals that have darker markings down their centres.

Given its hardiness, I would love to see the colourful H. fulva planted in highway medians. And I once saw in the middle of a home garden pond, a small island covered with H. fulva arching over the water to produce an amazing reflection. It looked like a giant flower arrangement.

Of course, the real daylily collectors will probably find my first three choices rather dull, so let’s have a look at some of the named cultivars. My friend, the late Gerald Straley, who was former curator of collections at the UBC garden, loved the cultivar ‘Sunday Gloves.’ It has creamy-white satiny flowers, the larger almost circular kind, on shortish stems about 30 cm (12 in.) tall. Typically, each stem has many buds that open in succession over the early summer. The foliage of Gerald’s plant was quite a bit shorter, but it may have been because he was growing it in a 30 cm (12 in.) pot.

Of all the newer cultivars I tend to like H. ‘Red Rum,’ an erect strong grower with very deep brick-red star-shaped blooms, 11 cm (4.5 in.) across, that look up at you with their bright faces. It would be a great one to add to a mixed hot-coloured perennial border with lots of Lychnis chalcedonica and Persicaria amplexicaule, and plenty of bright-green foliage in between.

Locally in the Fraser Valley, fine daylily hybridizer Pam Erikson, together with her Canadian colleagues, has been working on newer hybrids for both hardiness and length of bloom, resulting in many varieties that flower for up to 10 weeks.

Here are some of Pam’s favourites:
‘Forever in Time’ is a newer hybrid with stunning 15 cm (6 in.) flowers. It has an amazing, dark, almost black eye pattern at the base of each petal, which is enhanced by the creamy whiteness of the rest of the petal.

‘Banquet at Versailles’ is an absolutely gorgeous hybrid. The flowers are quite large, with pale, almost primrose-yellow centres, then pale magenta edged with gold that actually looks like gold leaf. It was bred in Florida, and as Pam notes, most heavy-edged varieties usually need the southern heat for the blooms to open properly. But she has found this hybrid to perform beautifully in our B.C. climate. I guarantee if you have this one in your garden, it will be the talk of the neighbourhood.

‘Junie Beauchamp’ is a wonderful purple variety that seems to flourish if planted in an area that receives both good morning sun and afternoon shade, conditions that help it to keep its rich colour.

‘Bare It All’ is another showstopper with its fabulous pale-pink flowers with a deep-rose eye. In warm weather, these flowers will double. Plus, this hybrid is a long bloomer.

‘Chicago Raspberry,’ as the name suggests, offers pretty dessert-like flowers, each resembling a dish of raspberries and cream.

‘Carefree Peach’ is one of Pam’s and my favourites. I tend to like miniatures, and this one features abundant smaller flowers in a true peach shade.

And last but not least, ‘Firestorm’ is one of the so-called spider-flowered varieties, and this one boasts very showy, long, narrow twisting copper to yellow petals.

While there may not be a perfect plant out there, I would venture to say that Hemerocallis comes close. Not only are these carefree plants both hardy and tolerant of dry conditions, but with so many varieties to choose from, they bring to the garden a wealth of bloom colours, textures and forms. The one difficulty? Choosing a favourite!

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated:
Hemerocallis ‘Banquet at Versailles’ – zone 5
• H. ‘Bare It All’ – zone 2
• H. Carefree Peach’ – zone 2
• H. ‘Chicago Raspberry’ – zone 2
• H. citrina – zone 3
• H. ‘Firestorm’ – zone 2
• H. ‘Forever in Time’ – zone 4
• H. forrestii – zone 2
• H. fulva – zone 2
• ‘Junie Beauchamp’ – zone 2
• H. ‘Red Rum’ – zone 2
• H. ‘Sunday Gloves’ – zone 3
Lychnis chalcedonica – zone 2
Persicaria amplexicaule – zone 4

David Tarrant of the UBC Botanical Garden is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Spring, currently on HGTV.