Hemerocallis is a widely sold yet under-exploited genus of versatile and low-maintenance perennials. Just half a dozen varieties, mainly in shades of orange or yellow, are commonly found on nursery benches in the UK, yet there are more than 50,000 registered cultivars in every colour from white to deepest purple, many with interesting variations in petal shape and form.
The first plants to arrive in Europe were probably Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus Award of Garden Merit (AGM), recorded as early as the 16th century as an agricultural crop. Hemerocallis is still grown for its edible flowers and medicinal properties in its native China and Japan. In cultivation, the genus produces large, showy and highly scented flowers and robust clumps of strappy foliage.
The common name of "daylily" refers to the short life of each individual flower; they open in the morning and die by evening. Unfortunately, this has given rise to the common misconception that Hemerocallis has a short flowering season. In fact, the flowers are borne in large numbers and open successively over several weeks. There are also early-, mid- and late-season types.
The speed of flower production, and its generally easy nature, makes the genus straightforward to propagate from seed or division. North American breeders in particular have produced tens of thousands of hybrids over the past 50 years. There are now deep reds and purples, and flower forms from the ribbon-petalled "spiders" to "ruffleds", and the majority are sweet-scented. Almost all retain their colour and flower form in the UK and share the hardiness and tolerant natures of better-known types.
The highly exotic appearance of the new daylily hybrids makes them eye-catching additions to sales benches. Another selling point is the plants' tough disposition. Daylilies are hardy and perform well in virtually all garden conditions, although they do best in full sun and good soil.
The only necessary maintenance is dead-heading, which must be done regularly or the dead flowers spoil the appearance of the plant. They bulk up into sizeable clumps, dense enough to suppress weeds. Older types need dividing every few years, but the newer hybrids grow more slowly and can stay in the same clump for eight years or more.
The only serious pest in the UK is Hemerocallis gall midge, which causes flower buds to swell and drop off before opening. It appears only in early summer, so can be avoided by concentrating on later-flowering cultivars. Earlier-flowering types may recover, however, and flower again later in the year.
WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY
John Bowers, owner, John Bowers Daylilies, Norfolk "I have about 1,500 varieties of daylily, and I breed them. I'd always said that I wouldn't, because there are so many varieties, but the bug has bitten and now I've got a few promising seedlings coming on.
"People have preconceptions about them: they think that because the flowers open only for a day that they have a short flowering season, and that they come in orange or yellow only. The older ones do grow too large and flower briefly, and the flower form is inferior to the new varieties.
"There are now some very exciting colours - 'Moonlit Masquerade' is white with a black eye and blooms twice, so it's in flower for up to six weeks, and 'Chris Salter' has a gold edge. In the display beds we use them with heucheras and hostas for contrasting form.
"They're trouble free, though gall midge can be a problem. It lasts about a week, then disappears. There's a serious rust that affects daylilies, but it hasn't yet taken hold here.
"I invest heavily in colour pictures in my catalogues - they're not an automatic seller. With the right publicity, though, that could change."
Chris Searle, owner, Rosewood Daylilies and National Collection Holder, Kent "I started about 15 years ago - it was a hobby that just grew. We've got nearly 1,100 varieties, and we breed too.
"There's been a gradual change away from the older types. There was a lot of resistance for many years, but now people are growing the newer ones.
"I like the spider forms - you get more movement than in the lower-growing types. They also flower later so you miss the gall-midge problem. 'All American Windmill' is a superb spider type - the petals cascade, and it has a second blooming so provides a long flowering season.
"Spiders and the older of more-recent varieties, like 'Stafford', fit well into cottage gardens. Round and ruffled types need monocot beds. They go well with Agapanthus and Crocosmia, even grasses.
"Gall midge spoiled it for many people - it's become widespread in the south of England. You don't see it much after July, so the mids and lates don't get it. There's also one very early, 'Gold Dust', which misses it, and it's scented."
Mark Zenick, owner, Mynd Hardy Plants, Shropshire
"Daylilies can be exotic. 'Malaysian Monarch' gets great reactions as does 'Decatur Captivation', which has creped edges infused with pink. They're invaluable in August, when the garden can look forlorn. We have them in our walled garden with other perennials. We post photographs on the beds so in spring people see what they look like in flower.
"The trends are towards red at the moment. Fewer people are interested in the pastels. It's the bold colours that are selling."
SPECIES AND CULTIVARS
- H. 'All American Windmill' is a relatively recent introduction from the US. It has large, crispate, spider-type, orange flowers.
- H. 'Burning Daylight' Award of Garden Merit (AGM) has clear orange-yellow petals on slender stems to about 70cm and is strongly perfumed.
- H. Chicago 'Apache' has vivid scarlet flowers and is a good recommendation for late-summer colour. The Chicago range was bred for its ability to survive harsh American winters and the plants are all particularly hardy.
- H. citrina has long, slender petals and is widely used in breeding for its intense lemony perfume. It has greenish-yellow flowers in July and is a large plant, growing to 1.2m.
- H. 'Decatur Captivation' has flowers that are 16cm wide, ruffled rose-pink with gold throat. It is a late summer bloomer.
- H. fulva 'Flore Pleno', sometimes sold as H. forma 'Green Kwanso', is one of the oldest available types of daylilies, with traditionally shaped, orange flowers splashed with red from June to August. It's extremely vigorous, spreading by runners, and can be invasive.
- H. 'Gold Dust' is the earliest into flower of all the daylilies, appearing as soon as late April in a warm spring. This makes it a good choice where gall midge is a problem. The golden-yellow trumpets are relatively small but profusely borne and fragrant. H. 'Golden Chimes' AGM is very free flowering. It has yellow star-shaped blooms with brownish-red undersides. It also has attractive mahogany-coloured buds.
- H. 'Joan Senior' is one of the best white forms. Its intensely perfumed flowers are very large and creamy-white with a yellow throat and ruffled edges, appearing in early July.
- H. lilioasphodelus AGM has an exceptional fragrance and produces its clear yellow, recurved trumpets from early summer. Its flowers are long-lived, lasting up to three days, and it blooms from May to July. It is vigorous and spreads via runners so it can become invasive.
- H. 'Malaysian Monarch' is among the most exotic of the new hybrids. Its vivid purple flowers have a pale yellow throat and are up to 15cm across. They appear from mid-July onwards.
- H. 'Marion Vaughn' AGM is a tall, vigorous plant that flowers late in the season, producing heavily scented lemon-yellow flowers from August.
- H. 'Moonlit Masquerade' is a modern introduction, bearing unusual creamy-white flowers with a dark purple centre. It comes into flower a second time after the first flush is over, giving it an exceptionally long season.
- H. 'Outrageous' is a late-summer hybrid blooming from early July. Its large, vividly coloured flowers have heavily recurved petals with brick-red hearts and brassy-orange edges.
- H. 'Rajah' is a good recommendation for growing in difficult situations. It is very tough and produces burnt-orange flowers, even if positioned in quite heavy shade.
- H. 'Red Ribbons' is a tall-growing red that has won awards in its native America. It produces large, elegant, spidery flowers with narrow brick-red petals and it has a yellow-green throat.
- H. 'Stafford' has dark-red blooms with a yellow throat and it flowers generously from mid-summer. Like many reds, it does better in lightly shaded positions where its petals are less prone to scorching.