Cast-Iron Beauty

Once spurned by discriminating gardeners for being “too easy,” sturdy daylilies are enjoying a surge of popularity thanks to new “everblooming” varieties.

The daylily is a cast-iron plant, usually named by horticulturists as the most likely to survive a nuclear explosion. If you forget one in a plastic bag in your garage for a week or longer, you’ll likely find it alive and well. In a former age, daylilies may have been spurned as “too easy” for the discriminating gardener, but it is their very tough dependability that makes them so desirable to homeowners who appreciate a hardy plant. It doesn’t require a lot of fuss.

The genus is named Hemerocallis, Greek for “beautiful for a day,” because each flower lasts one day. This ephemeral name, however, belies the plant’s long-blooming nature. Each stalk has several blooms with one to three opening per day, and each plant has several stalks that come up in succession. Planting a range of earliest-blooming varieties (EE) to very late-blooming ones (VL) was and still is a great way to keep the color coming on strong.

However, the biggest news in daylilies is that many new cultivars are being hybridized for extended flowering time, and, with judiciously timed shearing, some types can be coaxed into summer-long bloom.

While there is a great deal of excitement in the industry about reblooming varieties, Mark Viette of Andre Viette Farm & Nursery in Fishersville thinks that the real advancement in daylilies is the long-blooming plants. “They are even better,” says Viette, “because you do not have to wait on the second wave of flowers. Whereas a rebloomer might flower one or two more times after its first big show, daylilies are considered everbloomers if they bloom three to four times a year.”

A rejuvenation plan can get the most flowering possible from your plants. Everblooming daylilies flower and naturally try to produce seed. Then, one month to six weeks later, they start sending up buds. Right when the plant finishes its first wave of bloom and before its new buds start coming out of the ground, you want to shear the plants much as you shear liriope after its bloom. Gear hedge trimmers three to four inches from the ground and shear off the foliage and stalks. This action shocks the plant into blooming in another prolific wave all at once and also gets rid of the tired-looking foliage. At this time, feed with Plant-tone, an organic fertilizer. Repeat this process after bloom cycles for top flower production.

When shopping for daylilies that will enhance your landscape, Viette offers this suggestion: “Look for a plant that produces lots of stems, and for stems that hold their flowers high up on the stem, above the foliage.” Iconic “Stella d’Oro” daylilies are outrageously popular as the everblooming variety, but Viette points out that Stella carries her golden flowers low on the stem, so they are sometimes obscured by the foliage. He prefers “Lemon Lollipop,” a true yellow, to “Stella d’Oro” and adds that it is normal for this variety to produce up to 10 fans per year. When purchasing container-grown daylilies, look for these multiple fans (the bright green start of straplike foliage coming out of the crown) to get the best value, because those can be divided into several plants.

Andre Viette, father of Mark and owner of Viette Nurseries, uses a little geometric equation when giving daylily lectures to show how much of a return you can get on a small investment. “If you start with a single daylily and, after one year, divide it into three plants and then divide each of those divisions into three plants the next year, and keep doing this every year for seven years, you would end up with 2,187 daylilies.”

Aesthetically, the nursery gives high marks to daylilies whose flowers face out rather than facing upward. “Color Me Yellow” displays this desirable habit of the outward-facing flower, presenting its full form and color broadly spread across the garden for the biggest splash. Mark Viette further advocates choosing flowers that “hold their substance and don’t melt” in the afternoon sun. “Look at the flowers later in the day,” he says. “Some stay looking better than others.” He favors “Black Friar” (named for Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton) for its staying power. Viette also likes “Lemon Cap,” which reblooms two to three times, and “Fragrant Light.”

Home gardeners will save money if they plant daylilies farther apart. Viette says a common mistake is planting perennials too close. “This chokes out plants, and it’s like burning $20 bills!” Instead, plant daylilies a minimum of 24 inches apart. To facilitate this ample spacing, he advises cutting four or five bamboo sticks, each 24 inches long, and using them as spacers when planting. With this plan, each plant will ultimately take up 3.3 square feet in the garden, so they will have room to reach their full potential. Raised beds containing 25 percent organic matter and roto-tilled deeply to a consistency that Andre calls “chocolate pudding” can hardly fail.

Elise Zylstra of Sandy’s Plants in Mechanicsville emphasizes the importance of spreading roots out fully when planting, and not planting too deeply—a common mistake. She agrees that daylilies are adaptable to many soil types and conditions, including heat, wind and cold. Once established, she says, they are drought-tolerant but should be deep-watered the first and second weeks after planting and thereafter every seven to 15 days as necessary. Though you may not think of daylilies as a cut flower, Zylstra points out that they are actually very long-lasting in arrangements because as soon as each bloom dies, there is another one coming on behind it, totally fresh for the next day.

Zylstra says that daylilies are edible (just watch the deer). The buds are used often in Asian cooking, especially in stir-fry where they are cooked like mushrooms and have a slight garlicky flavor. Zylstra explains that the great variety of size (one to four feet tall) and color of daylilies offers opportunities for formal and informal plantings. She likes to combine them with ornamental grasses such as the panicums and muhlenbergia. Her two favorite daylily cultivars are “Eldorado,” a yellow with a purple picotee edge, and “Jersey Spider” because of its long-lasting orange blooms. A more traditional favorite, because of its fragrance, is “Hyperion.”

All daylilies are attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds—an invitation to nature that brings an added dimension to the garden. They dazzle with drifts of flowers that have made a quantum leap over your grandmother’s orange charmers. Plant them and then enjoy their beauty—not just for a day but for days on end.

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