Never underestimate daylilies

There's more to the story of these stalwarts

When the city of Syracuse, N.Y., planted daylilies in a median strip in mid-November, many seasoned gardeners gave the plants little chance of survival. The late planting would leave no time to establish roots, they said. Others said: Don’t underestimate those daylilies. Spring rolled around, and the daylilies popped up, undaunted.

The daylily’s botanical name, Hemerocallis, is Greek for “beautiful for a day.” Individual flowers last only for a day, but the hard-working plant constantly produces new buds and stays in bloom for most of the growing season.

Those are legitimate reasons why daylilies are everywhere – but there’s more to the daylily than its hardy, ubiquitous nature.

For one thing, there is considerable diversity, not to mention beauty. I went to the Fort Wayne Daylily Society’s summer show expecting to see a few nice specimens, but the room was packed with some 250 daylilies of various types and colors. I hardly knew what to look at first – the bright green-and-magenta Rose F. Kennedy, the deep purple Night Wings or several spider varieties with long, narrow petals.

Local growers hybridized a great many of the ones at the show. Anyone can register a cultivar with the American Hemerocallis Society – if the daylily meets the society’s criteria and the registration fee ($20) is paid. Each cultivar must have a unique name. Some are named after family members or friends. Others reflect color or growth habit.

“You just make them up,” said hybridizer Lana Wolfe, vice president of the local daylily society. Wolfe, a grandmother, begins her cultivar names with “Mema’s” – such as the soft peach-and-yellow Mema’s Guardian Angel, whose ruffled petals might in fact make fine angel wings.

New Haven dentist Paul Downie, president of the local society, has been hybridizing daylilies for years. He now sells them as Bee’s Garden, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting the Matthew 25 clinic.

Daylilies are not fussy, Downie said. They tolerate lots of rain, love clay and don’t really care what kind of soil they find themselves in. “They’re a good old Midwest July flower,” he said.

Although some newer cultivars can cost several hundred dollars, Wolfe said the price eventually comes down. The society had some beautiful member-grown plants for sale in the $4 to $10 range.

So they’re lovely, easy and affordable, but here’s the other thing: There is some serious science involved. Listening to Wolfe and Downie explain the hybridizing process and the 5-to-1 petal length-width ratio that defines a spider variety, I wished I remembered more details from my college botany class, not to mention Master Gardener training. I mean, there are tetraploid (44 chromosomes) and diploid (22 chromosomes) daylilies, and it’s even possible to convert one to the other. Creating your own cultivars, building on beauty and uniqueness – I can see how that might take hold of a creative type with a mind for science.

The best way to get started, though, is to join the Fort Wayne Daylily Society, Downie said; plenty of good tips and plants are shared. It meets three times a year. For more information, contact Downie at (260) 493-4601 or You can also download Purdue’s publication, HO-16: Daylilies.

And the next time you see a daylily on the street, show a little respect.

First appeared in the September 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.


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