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The Basics: Daylilies

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An Easy-Care Perennial that Never Fails to Deliver

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"I love daylilies and have many varieties planted throughout my yard. This one, called Big Smile, has huge, 7" blooms, the most beautiful color and is fragrant, too! People have actually stopped to ask what it is. It's that much of a showstopper!"
Photo by Charlotte of Mckeesport, Pa.

If ever there was a "sure thing" in the world of perennial flowers, it has to be daylilies. They grow from Minnesota to Florida (most cultivars are hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9), tolerate a wide variety of soils and climate conditions, are not troubled by diseases or pests, and bloom faithfully every summer with virtually no attention.

Daylilies are true to their botanical name, Hemerocallis, which means "beauty for a day". Most daylily flowers open in the morning, then close and die with nightfall. However, each scape (flower stalk) typically has more than a dozen flower buds, so an individual plant can bloom for weeks. Daylilies look best planted in groups, either in a perennial border or as mass plantings along a fence or walkway. Daylily leaves are particularly good at hiding dying bulb foliage, so they are often inter-planted with spring-flowering bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils.

Daylily Types

Although there are many different species of daylilies, including the ubiqitous roadside lily (Hemerocallis fulva), the night-blooming, citrus-scented H. citrina, and the early blooming, fragrant, lemon lily (H. flava), most daylilies planted by home gardeners are hybrid cultivars.

There are thousands of daylily cultivars, and they can be grouped in a variety of ways. Some of the most common groupings are by bloom time (early, mid-, and late), flower color (white to purple), scape height (6 inches to 3 feet tall), or flower form (trumpet, double, ruffled, recurved). By choosing early-, mid-, and late-flowering cultivars, you can have daylily flowers blooming through most of the summer. By choosing daylilies of various heights, flower colors, and shapes, you can mix and match your daylilies with low or tall growing perennials or even plant them in containers.

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Customer photo of the Solar Moonglow Daylily by Jennifer Lang of Pearland, Texas.

Daylilies can also be grouped by plant type. Here are some of the types of daylilies you may encounter:

Diploid: Referring to the 22 chromosomes in the plant, diploid daylilies tend to have more, but smaller flowers than tetraploids and a graceful, old-fashioned form. Many double-flowered daylilies are diploids.

Tetraploid: Referring to the 44 chromosomes in the plant, tetraploid daylilies tend to have larger, more intensely colored flowers than diploids. They're also supported by stronger and sturdier scapes.

Miniature: These compact varieties range from 12 to 25 inches tall. Flowers are smaller, too. Use them in tight spaces or at the garden's edge.

Dormant: Refers to the habit of the daylily foliage to die back to the ground in fall regardless of the weather. These cultivars grow best in cold climates. Most daylily cultivars fall in this category.

Evergreen/Semi-Evergreen: Some daylilies have foliage that stays evergreen or semi-evergreen all winter in mild areas. These cultivars are best adapted to warm-climate areas.

Reblooming: Some varieties bloom a number of times during the summer. In general, they have a main bloom period in summer, followed by more blooms, often right up until frost. Removing the faded flower heads encourages reblooming.

Planting Care

Daylilies flower best when planted in full sun (6 hours/day), on moist, yet well-drained soil. In hot climates, dark-colored cultivars should receive some afternoon shade to help them retain their flower color. When planted in the correct location, daylilies will flower for years with little care. They do not require fertilization other than a yearly addition of compost.

If buying daylilies by mail, plant them within a few days of receiving them. In the South, plant in spring or fall while temperatures are still cool. In the North, daylilies should be planted in spring so they have plenty of time to get established before winter. However, daylilies are such tough plants, that in the North, most can be planted anytime from spring through fall.

Amend the soil with compost before planting. Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart and plant so the crown is 1 inch below the soil. Water well and mulch with bark, hay, or straw to conserve moisture and prevent weeds from growing. Although resilient once established, young transplants should be kept free from weeds and well watered the first year.

Daylilies have few pests. However, a new daylily disease--a type of rust--has been spreading throughout the county, attacking many plants. To control this disease, keep the area around daylilies open and airy, remove diseased foliage, and water plants when rainfall is insufficient.

Dividing Daylilies

One of the few routine maintenance chores needed when growing daylilies is dividing them. Depending on their growth, your daylily clump will usually become crowded after four to five years and flowering will diminish. In most areas, late summer is the best time to divide daylilies. In the North, early spring is an alternate option, especially if the weather typically turns cold quickly in fall.

Dig up individual clumps with a sharp knife or spade. Separate healthy young plants (fans) with strong root systems. Cut back the foliage and replant immediately in compost-amended soil or plant in containers. You'll have many extra plants from each clump to give away to friends and neighbors. Discard any small or diseased plants.

Winter Care

In northern areas, newly planted daylilies can be mulched in late fall. This is important for young plants which otherwise may be heaved out of the ground the first winter. Dead foliage can be removed in spring, unless it was diseased. In that case it is best to remove it in fall.