Heirloom Daylilies

Most gardeners who think they know daylilies know (and grow) modern hybrids, the plants that specialist breeders have produced by the thousands. Prized by collectors for their ever-larger flowers, their splashy color combinations, their ruffles, watermarks, halos, picotee edges, and other elaborations, these are the daylilies most sought after today.

But there is another world of daylilies—that of species and early hybrids. These plants, once treasured by gardeners for their elegance of form, are mostly unknown today, even among specialists. Species and early hybrids come in a simple range of colors—think of oranges and lemons, yellow pencils, school buses, and the Kodak box—and they have few of the striking features that today’s collectors crave. But they are distinguished by one great quality: they retain the classic lily shape that has largely been bred out of modern daylilies. They are supremely beautiful. For this alone they are worth seeking out.

I was introduced to old daylilies in 1986 by an encounter with a book called Daylilies (originally published in 1934) by the botanist Arlow Burdette Stout. At the time, I thought I didn’t much like daylilies. Except for a clump of ‘Hyperion’, a classic yellow from 1925 that is still available today, most of the daylilies I had grown didn’t fit in with the rest of my garden. They were too big and too showy, out of scale with my assortment of campanulas, cranesbills, irises, alliums, salvias, and other lacy, billowy, cottage-garden perennials. And often when I planted one, its color—especially if pink or red—fought with the flowers that surrounded it. I ended up giving many daylilies away. But when I saw the fuzzy gray photos of Dr. Stout’s book, I was captivated. His daylilies looked like lilies, and they were smaller and shapelier than most daylilies I knew. Although the photos were black and white, Stout’s descriptions of strong, clear colors—lemon yellow and rich golden orange—were beguiling.

After some searching through mail-order catalogs (this was before the days of the Internet) I ordered three of these daylilies: Hemerocallis flava, a species now known as H. lilioasphodelus, and the hybrids ‘Gold Dust’ and ‘Orangeman’, which date from before 1906 (exactly when is unknown). All three bloomed the following May (yes, May—see below) and immediately made me a collector of old daylilies.

Daylily Species

All daylilies are natives of Asia—primarily of China, Japan, and Korea—where they have long been used for medicine and food. We know from botanical illustrations that plants had been brought to Europe by the 16th century. Linnaeus identified two species: H. fulva (tawny orange, the familiar roadside specimen) and H. flava (yellow). Most other species recognized today were identified in the 18th and 19th centuries as explorers and plant hunters brought them back from their expeditions to Asia, primarily China. By 1900, more than a dozen species were recognized, but confusion reigned, as nomenclature was inconsistent and many species had variant forms.

Enter Dr. Stout, who arrived at the New York Botanical Garden in 1911. He worked diligently to identify and classify the species, but his 1934 book bears ample witness to his difficulty: “The species of daylilies are variable and… there are several different plants in culture under each of the names.” This confusion persists today, but botanists now recognize around 20 species (exactly how many depends on which botanist you ask), and new species (and variants) are still being discovered.

All daylily species bear yellow, gold, or orange flowers. The reds, pinks, and purples seen in modern daylilies are the result of hybridizing from one variant, pink-tinged form of the tawny daylily, H. fulva, brought back from China in the 1920s. Species flowers have narrow petals and are distinctly lily- or trumpet-shaped. Species plants, however, vary greatly in size (from less than six inches to more than six feet) and period of bloom (from early May to late September). Some flower at night, and some hold their flowers open for more than a day, a phenomenon known as extended blooming. Hybrids from the species often carry their parents’ characteristics.

I grow several species in my garden, among them H. citrina, H. dumortieri, H. hakunensis, H. lilioasphodelus, H. middendorffii, H. multi-flor, and H. yezoensis—or at least I think I do. Plants offered for sale as species may not be, and it is difficult to be sure without consulting a botanist, or several. Gardeners who choose to grow them must be able to tolerate some uncertainty and to enjoy them for what they are—beautiful plants. Those for whom a plant’s identity is important might prefer to grow early named hybrids, which have all the qualities of the species and (sometimes) a clearer pedigree.

Early Hybrids

Although Dr. Stout’s name is preeminent among early hybridizers, the first recognized hybrid, ‘Apricot’ (1893), was the creation of George Yeld (1845–1953), a British schoolmaster who grew daylilies as a hobby. Yeld also bred or recorded the existence in the trade of ‘Sovereign’, ‘Gold Dust’, ‘Estmere’, and ‘Orangeman’, all of which date from around 1906. These daylilies are very early, blooming the second or third week of May in my garden, and all are fragrant. Except for ‘Sovereign’, which is yellow, all are gold and fairly short (around 30 inches or less).

By the time of Dr. Stout’s book (1934), a few hundred hybrids had been produced, and many of these had become commercially available. Unfortunately, many have been lost over the years, and others probably still circulate with inaccurate names or no names at all. I have located and grown about 30 of the more than 150 cultivars described in the book and chosen to keep about 20 for my own garden. Of these, the only well-known cultivar is ‘Hyperion’ (1925), a pale yellow, slightly fragrant July bloomer that is still widely available. Unfortunately, many other yellow daylilies travel under the name of ‘Hyperion’; the problem of misnamed plants is still very much with us.

Foundlings

Every gardener who has an interest in heirloom plants must learn to live with mystery. Accumulating a foundling patch-a collection of the nameless-is inevitable. I have chosen daylilies from nurseries where labels were missing or growers couldn’t identify their stock. I have bought unregistered (and thus nameless) seedlings. I have been sent plants in the mail that have proved to be not what I ordered. I’ve begged plants from friends who could only tell me, “it was here when we bought the house.”

Gardeners who want to identify old daylilies can find help from the Hemerocallis Check List 1893–1957, published by the American Hemerocallis Society.

Daylily fanciers today usually dismiss varieties such as ‘Hyperion’ as historical curiosities of limited interest. The oldies, they believe, have been superseded by varieties with larger, showier flowers, sturdier stems, longer blooming periods, or other perceived advantages. Since my criterion is a simple one—beauty of form—I consider none of these qualities an advantage. A daylily like ‘Ophir’ (1924), for example, has large trumpet-shaped flowers (rather like a golden orange Easter lily) of unmatchable shape. It is also a robust grower, tall (about four feet), slightly fragrant, and very floriferous. Blooming around the third week of June and continuing for almost a month, it is far too fine a plant to be forgotten—fully the equal of the better-known ‘Hyperion’.

Near contemporaries of ‘Ophir’, such as the delicate yellow ‘Gracilis’ (1933)—little more than a foot tall, with thin, grassy foliage—are also worth growing. ‘Flava Major’ (pre-1925) is also yellow, much larger in every dimension, and strongly fragrant. ‘Aureole’ (1918), golden orange and floriferous, is another early-flowering standout. Most of these very old hybrids are the offspring of species such as H. lilioasphodelus and H. dumortieri that bloom in late spring. In my garden, their peak bloom comes around May 20, and their clear, bright yellows and golds combine well with the mostly cool colors that prevail then—from lavender bearded iris, blue and white Siberian iris, many geraniums (G. pratense, G. sylvaticum, G. xmagnificum, G. macrorrhizum, and others), columbines, white dame’s rocket, Anchusa azurea, and various amsonias. The background of intense green from the foliage of many later-blooming perennials makes all these colors compatible. Visitors to my garden in late May invariably ask, “Are those daylilies?” The amount of bloom, and its exuberant marigold palette so early in the year, are a shock to those who expect daylilies only in July.

Developments in Hybridization

Beginning in the 1920s, new Hemerocallis species arrived at the New York Botanical Garden, and Dr. Stout sought not only to classify them botanically but to use their characteristics in his hybridization program. From H. fulva var. rosea, he took pinkish pigment that eventually allowed him to produce the first pink and red daylilies in 1934. From H. multiflora, a species from China, he took branching stature and late-blooming habit, and from H. altissima he took enormous height—six feet or more.

Today, a number of Dr. Stout’s creations can still be found in the trade. Although they are admirable, I find them difficult to place in my own garden because so many are red, hot orange, or tawny, but I do like the shocking ‘Buckeye’ (1941), an early gold with a maroon eye, ‘Poinsettia’ (1953), a midseason red with perfect form and delicate markings, and its companions ‘Linda’ (1937), a cream and light orange bitone, and ‘Serenade’ (1937), a spidery orange with a pale stripe. Best of all, however, are the late-season H. altissima hybrids, in particular the lemon yellow ‘Autumn King’ (1950) and the shorter but similar ‘Autumn Prince’ (1941). I wait all summer for the first buds to open on these very tall plants (‘Prince’ reaches nearly four feet, ‘King’ close to six) at the turn of August. They are ideal companions for bronze fennel and for late white flowers—phlox, Euphorbia corollata, and Veronicastrum virginicum, all of which also offer contrasting foliage. They continue to bloom until nearly the end of September, and are faintly fragrant.

By the 1940s and 50s, a number of hybridizers were producing wonderful daylilies, but today most of their names are familiar only to daylily fanciers. One such hybridizer was Elizabeth Nesmith of Massachusetts, a contemporary of Dr. Stout. I grow only one of her creations, ‘Canari’ (1940), but it is such a beautiful thing that I will be grateful to her for as long as I garden. A creamy pale yellow with a spidery shape, it grows to about three feet and flowers in mid-July. Another great creation is David Hall’s ‘Swansdown’ (1951), which strongly resembles ‘Hyperion’ but is a much paler yellow. In this era, breeders produced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such cultivars that have been all but forgotten today. Other favorites in my midseason collection are ‘Golden Chalice’ (1943), a forthright gold and a powerful grower; ‘Sceptre’ (1946), another gold of classic form; ‘Libby Finch’ (1949), a starry red with a cream stripe; and ‘Green Gold’ (1951), a bright yellow with a greenish cast. Two small-flowered varieties, ‘Golden Chimes’ (1954) and ‘Corky’ (1959), provide an interesting contrast to the larger midseason crowd. With a few exceptions, my choices are yellow and gold, with a few reds, because these blend in best with the rest of my garden. Most older pink daylilies have a distinct tawny undertone that makes them impossible to combine with clear or bluish pinks. I do keep two old pinks of good form, ‘Neyron Rose’ and ‘Evelyn Claar’ (both 1950) in a corner of their own, surrounded by greenery.

Why Grow Heirloom Daylilies?

Given the thousands of daylilies on the market, why grow these antiques? Modern daylilies are everywhere; by contrast, species and old hybrids can be hard to find. Besides their beauty, old daylilies have other fine qualities. Many are fragrant. Their thinner, smaller flowers mean that deadheads are not very noticeable—in contrast to modern daylilies, which are disfigured by heavy, ugly spent blooms. (Since flowers open only for a day, this is not a trivial consideration: modern daylilies must be deadheaded daily or they look slovenly.) The old varieties range widely in size and in bloom time—daylilies flower in my garden from mid-May until the end of September, sometimes longer. Their colors are clear and stable; they combine well and most suffer little weather damage. They are vigorous and naturalize well in areas where deer are not a problem. And they are inexpensive, often as little as a few dollars per plant. (My superb ‘Canari’ cost $3 in 1994.)

And their disadvantages? Their flowers are mostly smaller, and their color range is limited—if you abhor yellow and gold flowers, look elsewhere. Certainly, most are not as showy or as elaborate as modern hybrids, and they lack the unusual color combinations and baroque forms breeders seek today. Some can lean or flop; their stems are not as thick (I would say coarse) as those of modern varieties, especially tetraploids. Some, like my favorite ‘Swansdown,’ have imperfect foliage, undistinguished and limp (my love for that ethereal flower makes me tolerate the leaves). And some modern varieties bloom longer—but I would rather have three weeks of a flower I love than months of one that is commonplace.

Although I’ve been exploring old daylilies now for many years, I am always on the lookout for new varieties to collect, wishing only that more gardeners might join me in admiring plants that should not disappear.

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