Daylilies–From Dips to Tets, History and Trends

An image of Daylily 'August Frost'.

If you’re looking for durable reliable perennials that are easy to care for and offer a variety of flower colors and forms, you should consider daylilies.

By Barbara Perry Lawton

[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener July/August 2012 issue.]

If you’re looking for durable reliable perennials that are easy to care for and offer a variety of flower colors and forms, you should consider daylilies. They’ve come a long way from original Asian daylilies with their star-shaped orange and yellow blooms. Once horticulturists discovered the genetic malleability of daylilies in the late 1800s, they began breeding them, looking at first for a wider range of colors, beyond gold to yellows and orange-reds. Plant breeders also began looking for shorter flower stalks—the originals usually grew to a height of three feet or even more. At the same time, they were seeking other flower forms.

I gained wonderful insights to the world of daylilies from Jo Roberson who, with her husband Jack, are the founders and principals of All-American Daylilies of Grain Valley, Missouri. She told me of the progress in the daylily world. Beginning in the 1950s, breeders achieved a wider array of colors and began to breed daylilies for other characteristics including clearer colors, ruffled flowers and bloom markings such as edgings and “eyes.” They also were looking for new flower surfaces and textures as they considered the star-shaped species flowers inferior.

When daylily fanciers discovered that the chromosome count of the plant could be altered with such things as colchicum, a chemical derived from crocuses, they developed daylilies with twice the number of chromosomes. The original plant has 32 chromosomes and is referred to as a diploid. The new inventions resulted in daylilies with double the chromosomes—these were referred to as tetraploids. These were husky plants with thick-petaled flowers and more substantial stems and leaves. Many daylily fanciers focused on the “tets” to the exclusion of other varieties.

With the introduction of ‘Stella de Oro’, the demand for repeat-blooming daylilies was

Daylily 'Purple D'Oro' Photo courtesy Walters Gardens

Daylily ‘Purple D’Oro’
Photo courtesy Walters Gardens

born. Plant breeders of the 1970s and 1980s worked toward repeat bloomers and soon were introducing daylily varieties of all types that would reliably bloom more than once a growing season. The most successful of these bloomed almost continuously. This trend in plant breeding has continued until today. At the same time, consumers began to seek smaller day lilies for the smaller gardens of condos and also for containers.

These various trends have given daylilies a new importance in today’s gardens. New colors and smaller forms mean that daylilies can fit well into any situation. Their increasing popularity underlines this.

Growing Daylilies

Daylilies are tough plants that will grow almost anywhere. They prefer full sun though they will tolerate less. They will grow in almost any soil, but will thrive if provided with a well-draining soil that has been fortified with well-rotted compost. Don’t plant daylilies where they are in close contact with tree and shrub root systems. Though they are tough, they are not able to compete with larger plants.

Daylilies do require ample moisture. They should receive the equivalent of an inch of water per week. At the same time, avoid keeping the soil wet, especially during hot weather when fungal and bacterial diseases are most prevalent. Mulching will modulate the soil temperature and help retain moisture.

Fertilizing regularly will encourage vigorous growth and larger blooms. I like to use organic fertilizers since they will not burn sensitive plant roots. Well-rotted cow manure or the equivalent can be applied according to directions in the spring and fall.

Although pests and diseases are uncommon to rare in daylilies, you should monitor them for signs of pests and symptoms of disease. Use an insecticidal soap spray for pests that may appear. Check with experts if you have signs of disease.

Fall is a good time to lift and separate daylilies. Be sure to allow them several weeks to reestablish their root systems before the first average hard frost. Let the daylily clumps sit for a day or so to allow any of the injured areas to dry. Give extras to friends and neighbors.

A Few Final Words

Unfortunately, deer enjoy daylilies very much. The easiest way to cope with this is to plant them in a protected spot.

Daylilies are tasty—the thick petals of the tetraploid forms are particularly sweet. The roots, tender young stems and flowers are a home-grown treat when sautéed. The flowers are attractive and tasty in salads. If you plan to serve daylily dishes, be sure to plant enough plants to both display and to eat.

Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO.