This time of year, daylilies are far from the center of attention in most landscapes. The beautiful, vibrant flowers that adorn the scapes of most traditional varieties earlier in summer have long faded, leaving a much less interesting plant that very much resembles a clump of grass. As their name implies, each flower only lasts one day, yielding to subsequent flower buds that open for a period of just a few weeks in many cases.
However, hybridization and extensive work by plant breeders (both professional and hobbyist) over the past century has produced nearly 89,000 named varieties, offering a wide range of ornamental attributes, including re-blooming and late-blooming varieties that flower late into the fall season.
Daylily is a common name that refers to flowering plants in the genus Hemerocallis, all of which are native to Asia. In China, Hemerocallis species were used both medicinally and as food (the buds and roots are edible) for more than 4,000 years. It wasn’t until the 1500s that this genus arrived in Europe to begin its history in western culture as an ornamental plant.
Daylilies traveled to the New World with early European settlers and gained popularity among homesteads due to their overall hardiness and low maintenance, lending themselves to easy propagation and quick establishment.
Among the wild species of Hemerocallis, two became favorites in the West. The orange daylily (H. fulva), which is also known as the tawny daylily or tiger daylily, and the yellow daylily (H. lilaspheodelus), also known as the lemon daylily. By the early 1900s, both species were in extensive cultivation across the U.S. After such success in our temperate, East Coast climate over the years, they were able to escape from old homesteads, cemeteries and other remnants of human cultivation to naturalize roadsides and other semi-natural areas.
Over the last 100 years or so, plant breeders have made great improvements in daylilies, creating a huge variety of color, texture, size and bloom time. There is an amazing range of color in modern varieties, from pastels and pinks to deep red, purple and nearly blue varieties. It’s even more interesting to consider the origins of the colorful palette we see today, which came from an original assortment of just yellow-, orange- and rose-colored flowers.
Recently, I was able to visit with local gardener and daylily aficionado Mike Weber to learn more about the interesting world of daylily hybridization. Weber has been working with daylilies since the mid-’80s and offers a wealth of knowledge on the history of daylily breeding in the U.S., as well as first-hand experience developing hybrids of his own.
Although Weber is interested in a wide range of daylily characteristics, some of his recent hybridization efforts have focused on later blooming varieties. As I toured the Weber garden last week, Mike pointed out the many later-blooming varieties of daylily among his collection.
“To me, a daylily is something you should be able to see from all around your yard,” he explains as we walked up to a yellow-colored variety with especially tall scapes, setting blooms at eye-level.
He goes on to explain how this particular variety, “Autumn Minaret,” was developed by Dr. Arlo Stout in 1951. Stout established and ran an extensive breeding program at the New York Botanic Gardens from the 1920s through the late 1940s. He is commonly referred to as the “The Father of the Modern Daylily,” paving the way for many of the advances in hybridization we see today.
“Autumn minaret” is a favorite variety used in many of Weber’s own hybrids, primarily for its exceptionally tall scapes and later bloom time. The tall, showy plant towers over other plants around it, blooming for up to six weeks from early August to mid-September.
Next, we visited a plant Weber plans to pollinate. It’s a variety he developed in 2018, aptly named “Autumn Queen” as it was produced by cross-pollinating “Autumn Minaret” and another variety developed by Stout in 1956, called “Autumn King.”
“I’m glad you came out a little later this morning, we are at the optimal time for pollinating,” he noted while delicately selecting a stamen (pollen producing, male plant organ) from the flower of a daylily close by. As if using a tiny paint brush, he gently dabs the powdery pollen off onto the pistil (female organ) at the center of a flower on an “Autumn Queen” plant.
In the coming days, Weber should be able to tell if his pollination efforts were successful as the flower falls off, leaving a tiny green pod. If the pod remains attached over the coming weeks, it’s likely that viable seeds are developing inside.
“I mostly do this out of interest in the science behind it, the true experimentation to find something new,” Weber reflects toward the end of our visit.
As I leave, walking past rows of tiny daylilies that Weber has grown from seed he pollinated, I have to marvel at the possibilities. What an interesting experiment in plant genetics.