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Durable, Delightful Daylilies
Update your garden with an old-time favorite
By Aenne Carter
Hemerocallis ‘Most Noble’
Photo: Rachel Cobb
Daylilies are the workhorses of the garden. Blooming nonstop even during heat waves, daylilies are regaining their rightful throne as the Queen of Summer. In San Diego’s mild climate, daylilies start to flower in spring and endure into late fall. In addition to gracing the garden with color nine months out of the year, the flowers are edible.
While ancient Chinese ate the daylily’s crown and roots to treat liver disorders, most gardeners prefer the tastier portion of the plant, the buds and flowers. Blooms perched on top of cakes look elegant. Try a daylily stuffed with a goat’s cheese—a tasty treat. Mild, crunchy with a hint of celery, the flowers are surprisingly delicious.
Daylilies are grown for their garden color splash and not for their scent, but if you sniff closely, you may catch a sweet, lemony or honeyish fragrance. Scent and flavor are different by variety. As a general rule, we find them to be delicate with the pastels growing spicier as the color deepens, to bitter with the darker shades.
Daylily’s botanical name, Hemerocallis, comes from a combination of the Greek words for ‘day’ and ‘beauty.’ Their name gives a nod to the fact that most individual daylily blossoms open only for a single day. However, their multiple flower stalks are loaded with buds, so the overall show continues for weeks. Recently, new varieties that flower early in the season and re-bloom late have continued to expand the daylily’s extraordinary bloom season.
Daylilies are referred to as the perfect perennial because they bloom despite drought, shade, heat or poor soil. Furthermore, they are available in a rainbow of colors and in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Choose from intriguing flower shapes like triangle, circular, star, ruffled, trumpet, spider and more.
The evergreen varieties are well-suited for all parts of San Diego. The American Hemerocallis Society notes that daylilies vary in their ability to withstand cold, and suggests that you pick ones proven successful in your zone. However, even if you have a cold snap and your daylilies freeze or turn black, the crowns usually survive, especially if you cover them with mulch before midwinter.
With so many varieties of daylilies, and thousands of new options being added each year, San Diegans should focus on the evergreen, repeat blooming cultivars for maximum gardening delight. Old-fashioned plants and many of those bred for cooler climates bloom in one dramatic flush and also die back during part of the year. If you fall in love with one of these, you might want to continue your search for an equivalent flower in an evergreen, repeat blooming variety.
Caring for daylilies is a simple pleasure because they are not fussy and have relatively few pest or disease problems. Daylilies need at least five hours of sun, and that is about all they require of a gardener.
Sometimes, however, daylilies in San Diego’s coastal gardens get rust—especially in cool, damp summers. This rust is caused by a fungus, Puccinia hemerocallidis. First observed in 2000, and it leaves a distinctive orange powder on the leaves. When this powder is brushed off, the affected area is often left white. Although this looks horrid, the plant will survive.
To prevent this rust, plant daylilies where they will have good air circulation (not mashed up against a wall for example), and avoid overhead watering. If rust develops, it is vital to remove every single effected leaf, and destroy them. Additionally, never add diseased leaves to your compost heap because rust spreads by air and contact. Different daylily cultivars vary in their resistance to this disease; selecting disease resistance varieties will ease your mind and reduce your gardening chores.
Daylilies are the singular host to their own particular aphid, appropriately called the “daylily aphid.” Fortunately, these aphids are active primarily in the cool of spring and fall. To treat these pests, try the least toxic method first. Twice a day for several days in a row, spray infected daylilies with a hard jet of water. Often this is enough to get the aphids moving.
If you are impatient you may reach for an easy-on-the-environment spray, such as Safer Soap or Jungle Rain. Still bothered? As a last resort, reach for a mildly systemic pesticide and apply as directed on the label with advice from your local nursery.
For the best blooms, give daylilies regular and deep watering. However, should you become too busy to garden regularly or you go on a lengthy vacation, no worries, these durable plants bounce back quickly. As we focus on water-wise gardening, think about planting daylilies in a bed with other garden favorites with similar water needs so you can just soak that area regularly and not put excessive, unnecessary water on your marvelous drought-tolerant plants.
Jackie Jesch, owner of Daylily Hill (www.daylilyhill.com) in Bonsall, suggests feeding your daylilies with lawn fertilizer, or any fertilizer high in nitrogen. She says, “This will keep your daylilies green, growing and healthy. I fertilize whenever I have time, or when my plants begin to look yellow.” Although many experts recommend using a fertilizer labeled for flowers with high phosphorus, Jesch swears by lawn food.
Another unusual hint from Jesch is to cut your daylily down to about two inches above ground in the hottest and coldest times of the year. “To cut your daylilies back, simply use whatever tool you like: a serrated knife, weed whip or pruners.” She adds, “Then feed them and water in the fertilizer, and you will be surprised how quickly this revives your daylily.”
If you want to ‘gild your lilies,’ then apply organic mulch liberally around them. This helps retain moisture, keeps down competing weeds and gradually improves the soil.
Selecting Your Daylily
Newly developed daylilies are anything but run-of-the-mill. Currently, there are more than fifty-thousand varieties, with more being added yearly. Modern versions are bold with complex colors, including ones with contrasting edges. They also range in form, from thin and spider-like, to voluptuous with serious ruffles. Although there are many growers throughout the country offering catalogs filled with hundreds to thousands of varieties, we suggest that you buy from local growers to be assured of plants that are tested and well adapted to our climate. Whatever daylily you choose, they are the perfect perennial. These low maintenance beauties keep on coming with flowers even in withering heat.
The best-selling daylily at Daylily Hill in Bonsall remains ‘Sun Twist.’ The individual, clear yellow blossoms are large for a semi-dwarf, and each petal is curved back with a twist, therefore the name. After all, nothing looks fresher in sweltering midsummer than a yellow flower. For a glowing combination, team this sunny daylily with marigolds, and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.).
‘Strawberry Candy,’ the 1998 Stout Silver Award recipient, finally gives daylily lovers a true pink, without the usual dose of peach. Ruffled edges, combined with a darker pink edge and throat, make this daylily blue-ribbon worthy. Team ‘Strawberry Candy’ with coreopsis and feathery ornamental grass for a romantic look.
‘Hot Lips’ is another popular variety at Daylily Hill. This semi-dwarf has a rich, red color and a golden throat. Furthermore, it blooms for months, and the leaves are unusually substantial. This daylily energizes the garden with splashy red. ‘Hot Lips’ stands out in a container or surrounded by flowers in white and blue.
Buena Creek Gardens in San Marcos (www.buenacreekgardens.com) was once the site of one of the largest daylily growers Cordon Blue Nursery, which sold plants worldwide. Buena Creek Gardens still maintain a diverse stock of fifty or more varieties that are proven to be winners in local gardens.
Planting a Daylily
The first step to growing a daylily is finding a suitable spot. Look for an area with well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine (a minimum of five hours per day). Then, prepare the soil. Do this by digging and loosening the ground to a depth of one foot. Add in organic soil amendment and mix thoroughly with the native soil. Your hole should be twice the size of the daylilies’ rootball. Make a mound of soil in the center of your hole and splay the roots of the plant around the mound.
Aim to plant your daylily about as deep as it originally grew, and avoid setting the crown (where foliage and roots join) below the soil surface. It’s better to err in setting it slightly higher rather than slightly lower. One suggested method is to form a cone of earth and spread the roots out around the cone. Then spread a layer of soil covering the roots so the crown sits high. Press soil firmly to make sure there are no air pockets. This will leave a depression at the base of the crown like a mini moat which is ideal for soaking the roots without rotting the crown. Water the daylily well.
These plants are so tough, you can even transplant them when they are blooming! So if you find one you love blooming in a nursery you can buy it, bring it home and pop it right into the ground with no problem.
After three to five years, daylilies often need dividing. If you notice die-out in the center of the clump, or a decrease in flower production, this is the signal your daylily is ready to be rejuvenated. The easiest way to divide a large clump is to use a garden fork to lift the entire mass out of the ground. Work the fork about a foot out from the clump and gently push down all the way around the plant to loosen the roots. Eventually, the rootball will be free enough to hoist the clump out of the hole.
At this point insert a shovel or a large serrated knife into the middle of the clump to gently divide it. Continue dividing the clump in half until you have worked the large mass into petite new divisions. Depending on the size of the plant you may have two divisions, or as many as eight. Cut the foliage on each new clump down to a two-inch fan. This helps the plant retain moisture while it is getting established.
If you don’t have time to replant right away, the daylily stores nutrition in its roots so it can remain bare root for quite some time—one of the reasons pioneers spread them throughout the West as they traveled from homestead to homestead. When you are ready, plant them as indicated above. Just remember, no roots, no new plant.
You can expand your daylily area with the divisions or share or trade them with friends and neighbors. This eco-green practice takes advantage of nature’s bounty, minimizes the waste stream and creates good feelings among the people you know. After all, who doesn’t appreciate a new flower in their garden.
Reprinted from May/June 2009, Volume 100, Number 3
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