The Remains of the Day Lily

How to plant the ephemeral beauties.

Day lily

Those tawny orange day lilies you see along so many country and suburban roads are fading this month, their flower-bearing stems turning into brown sticks. Day lily flowers fade every day; they’re just speeding up their decline this time of year. Their scientific name, hemerocallis, comes from the Greek words hemero (day) and callis (beautiful). The dead flowers, which hang around for more than a day, have a vivid unscientific name: mush-mummies.

I just spent a hot August morning snipping the dead blooms from the 200-plus stalks of 100 day lily plants. My life, I thought as I cut off the limp brown blossoms, has enough reminders of the ephemeral nature of our time on earth without this. It’s a task I never would have spent hours on when I was working in other people’s gardens for money. About the time I’d finished cleaning off the dead flowers and brown stems, the leaves would yellow and begin to look ratty. But there are ways to minimize the mush and maximize the rewards of day lily collecting.

Though not defect-free, those orange day lilies and their highly cultivated relations do have many good qualities: They’re very hard to kill, which is the supreme quality in my book for an ornamental plant, and some of the colors are the essence of midsummer.  The problem is how to sort through the literally tens of thousands of named varieties to find the ones that are less trouble, or worth the trouble.

How grateful I was when a neighbor gave me those 100 common orange day lilies from which I snipped dead blossoms. They had a gorgeous flush of blooms in July, but since then the withered blooms have vastly outnumbered the pretty ones. That tawny day lily, officially named hemerocallis fulva, is rarely sold. You get it from someone who, like my neighbor, is tired of orange.

In their native China, Japan, and Korea, they thrive in scant pockets of soil along rocky ledges. If you divide a day lily in fall and leave pieces of leaf and root lying around on the ground, it will survive through the winter to be planted in spring—a box of roots attached to fans of leaves. Twenty or so plants in a shoe box, coming from one of the hundreds of day lily-specialist nurseries, can easily survive more than a week in the mail.

The plant is persistent, which made it one of the first things 18th-century American farm families planted. With their fleshy roots, day lilies can take drought. They can survive soggy soil but don’t like it. They’re not bothered by slugs, Japanese beetles, or deer. They need no staking or spraying. The foliage, dense and close to the ground, crowds out weeds. The plant can take full sun or partial shade.

They may not be at their happiest in Hawaii or northern Alaska, but you can grow them in every state. (Daylily World, should you be looking for it, has recently moved from Sanford, Fla., to Lawrenceburg, Ky.)

The sensible strategy, to avoid being seduced by those catalog photos of flawless single blossoms, is to find public gardens where you can see a whole plant, or a group of them, well-grown and labeled. The American Hemerocallis Society gives a list of such public gardens.

Some plants at the nursery are irresistible. For both its color and its name I had to buy “Frankly Scarlet,” and it’s worth the necessary deadheading. An adventurous nursery in the Hudson Valley, Loomis Creek, is pushing “Cinderella’s Dark Side,” an imperial, slightly sinister dark-purple with a chartreuse throat.

Up until the late-19th century, day lilies came only in orange, yellow, and a dull yellowy red. Now there are legions of named cultivars, from nearly white to nearly black (the nearly black include “Bela Lugosi,” as well as the infelicitously named “Congo Chant” and “Strutter’s Ball“). A.B. Stout of the New York Botanical Garden, a legendary hero to hybridizers, produced the first truly red day lily, “Theron,” in 1934, perhaps the ancestor of my “Scarlet.”

In the following decades, enthusiastic day lily cross-breeders created some improvements—stronger stems, for one—and a lot of excess. There are bizarre, twisted sepals (“Helix”). There are ruffles upon ruffles, and burgundy flowers with little pleated gold edges. Whoever named “Nagasaki” certainly had honoring Japanese culture in mind, but the billowing, fluffy double blooms swirled with cream and pink and lavender and yellow suggest an explosion.

It’s the highly bred and crossed tetraploids (having four times the number of haploid chromosomes in the cell nucleus), with a lot of heft and a lot of complicated frills, that turn into the most unsightly globs of mush.

By contrast, I’d recommend “Corky,” a small day lily with simple, small, clear-yellow blooms whose faded flowers fall off. All the plain light yellows, with simple trumpets, mix well with other flowers. The slender horn shape closes tight when it fades and is less obvious.

A sentimental favorite for people who disdain ruffles is “Hyperion,” one of the few day lily types bred in the 1920s to stay in commerce. The flowers are fragrant, wide open, a clean lemony yellow, and are borne on 4-foot stalks. (The light yellow is in contrast to the wildly popular “Stella d’Oro,” whose yellow is the color of the stripe down the middle of the road.)

Fall is almost as good a time as early spring to plant day lilies. You don’t need rich soil, which makes for rank growth. Watering is more important than feeding, though a dose of fertilizer in early spring can boost bloom.

My own shoe box of day lilies came in the mail in June: five “Autumn Minaret,” which intrigued me because the flower stalk can be up to 7 feet tall, and the bloom comes late in summer when color is much appreciated. In they went, roots smaller than my palm, two or three leaves the size of a baby’s finger, against a sunny barn wall.

Up came stalks from two of them, no more than two weeks later, with weird miniature flowers, yellow with a dark peach stripe. This stalk was maybe 5 inches tall; 5 inches, not 5 feet. This will not do, I told them, you’re too young to have sex (what making a flower is). You should be concentrating on establishing roots, as one might tell one’s own offspring. Violent though it seemed, I cut the flowers and stalks off, redirecting the plants’ energy. I was relieved to read later that many breeders cut off all flowers on newly planted day lilies for their first year. If they’re not terrorized, they may flower at the appropriate height next August.

A couple of notes:
Worth celebrating: Aug. 30 is the feast day of St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners and cab drivers. St. Fiacre was a monk in an Irish monastery whose skill with healing herbs gave him too many fans and followers in Ireland. He fled to France and moved into a cave, asking only for more land to cultivate to feed the sick. The local bishop said Fiacre could have as much land as he could till with his spade in one day. After a night of what turned out to be very effective prayer, Fiacre walked the perimeter of the desired acreage, touching the ground with his spade. Trees toppled over, bushes jumped out of the ground, stones fell away, and the soil basically tilled itself.

Why cabbies? The 17th-century hackney carriages of Paris set out from the Hôtel de St. Fiacre. You can recognize St. Fiacre in cathedrals; he’s the one with a spade.

I am indebted to a charming informative newsletter, the Avant Gardener, for this good idea from Canada: Ontario’s Thunder Bay Horticultural Society has asked mail carriers to nominate the best gardens for the town’s annual Civic Beautification Awards. Who better to notice a good garden? And thus every front yard in town is in the running.