Get Growing: Beware the tawny daylily


For the Gazette

Published: 08-09-2019 12:04 AM

I have a big patch of daylilies behind my house. They are a disorganized jumble of plants that were given to me along with others that I’ve bought at plant sales, nurseries and farmers markets. I have never paid much attention to this part of the garden. The lilies are so overgrown that weeds can’t get a toehold among them. I just pick off dead blossoms every few days and leave them be.

But this summer I’ve finally registered the truth of the matter: the daylilies are an unholy mess. Remember those spreads in women’s style magazines on Fashion Dos and Don’ts? I would call these an example of Gardening Don’ts. I decided this would be the year I cleaned up the daylilies.

Having made this resolution, I did some research into the cultivation and growing habits of the genus Hemerocallis, to which all daylilies belong. I examined my bed more closely and discovered, to my horror, that I have an infestation of tawny daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva), also known as ditch lilies. I confess I was not aware of the thuggish habits of this species of daylily. I considered them “meh” generics but appreciated their willingness to grow vigorously.

It turns out that their vigorous habit is not always a good thing. These garden monsters hog the nutrients in the soil, and because they are quite tall, they block the sun from smaller plants. Their root structure aggressively sends up new shoots so that they spread indiscriminately, interfering with better-behaved neighbors.

Not surprisingly, the tawny daylily is difficult to eradicate. Even a small bit of root will generate new, dominating growth. But now that I know what I’m up against, I am determined to rescue the more desirable daylilies that are being crowded out by the dreaded tawnies.

Fortunately, I found in my garden reading pile (another mess) an article called “Designing with Daylilies” from the May/June issue of The American Gardener, the excellent magazine of the American Horticultural Society. The author, Daniel Mount, is a landscape designer and writer who lives in Washington state. He believes that daylilies can be the ideal garden plant but says they are often not used to their best advantage. According to Mount, daylilies are challenging to design with for several reasons.

First, there are so many choices—more than 52,000 registered cultivars—that choosing the best ones for your garden can be head-spinning. Second, he says, their drooping, dying foliage can be unsightly if not artfully hidden. And third, their blooming times vary, even by time of day, making it important to plant carefully.

Mount gives plenty of good advice for making the most of daylilies in our gardens. For “failing foliage,” he recommends planting late-summer blooming flowers such as milkweeds in front of them to mask the limp, brown leaves. He also cuts the plants back hard, even though it shortens their bloom period. He often gets another flush of blooms with early varieties, and sometimes even with later varieties. He gardens in the Northwest, a very different climate from ours. But cutting back is worth a try. Anything beats a bunch of dead foliage burning in the hot August sun.

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Mount also discusses the question of daylily’s overall shape. There are three basic types of scapes, i.e. the stems topped by flowers. Top-branched scapes tend to bunch the flowers together at the top. This type looks gangly and out of proportion. Low-branched scapes often bloom at the same height as the foliage, masking the flowers. The best are what he calls well-branched scapes. These have “evenly spaced branching set above the foliage … allowing flowers plenty of room to develop.” It’s a bit like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Mount says that recent trends among hybridizers seem to favor plants with taller, well-branched scapes, so chances are you’ll find yourself with a well-conformed plant.

Size is another important variable. Some, like the diminutive Stella de Oro, need space near the front of the garden. Others have blooms reaching as high as 6 feet and can be placed farther back. When planting different varieties, make sure the taller ones don’t overshadow the shorter ones, and that the relative heights make an attractive overall flow.

Even though they’re called daylilies because their blooms last only a day, daylilies don’t all bloom at the same time. Some bloom early in the season, some don’t start till mid-August or later. Some bloom in the morning and are done by evening. Others bloom in the evening and close up early the next morning. A third type, extended bloomers, stay open for 16 hours, whether they bloom in the morning or evening. Nocturnal daylilies often are fragrant. So if you like to spend time in the garden in the evening, that’s something to consider.

A final design consideration is color and the type of petal. There are so many different shades, from ivory to purple. Some have stripes, others have eyes. Some have smooth-edged petals, others are ruffled. Some have enormous flowers, some are delicate and miniature. Mount cautions against the temptation to pick too many contrasting varieties that might not go well together. He suggests mixing an unusual color of daylily with another type of plant, a deep orange daylily with burgundy shrubs, for example.

Finally, Mount recommends doing research before buying new daylilies. Visit nurseries and local botanical gardens and observe combinations that work well. Take notes. Take a deep breath, too. There’s so much to choose from. As for those tawnies, they can be a lifesaver in big empty spaces. Just make sure they’re contained. I have a few places in mind where my tawnies might be just perfect.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.Upcoming garden events

BBG’s Grow Show

Berkshire Botanical Garden’s 49th annual Grow Show will take place Aug. 10 and 11, with local floral designers and backyard gardeners. Floral arrangements and the peak summer harvest will be in the spotlight in this judged event. There will be six design classes and nearly 80 horticulture classes on display in the Exhibition Hall. The floral design theme is “Gardens of the World.” Horticultural divisions include annuals, perennials, biennials, vegetables, fruits and berries, container grown plants, and dish gardens. Anyone can enter; there is no charge to participate.

New this year is a weekend-long, digital on-screen exhibition titled “Considering Gardens,” presented by BBG Photography Group. Another highlight of this year’s show is “Game of Flowers,” an epic live battle of floral designers on Saturday at 3 p.m.

The weekend will also include an edible art workshop for kids on Saturday from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Children will create an arrangement with vegetables and flowers that will be on display. The event is limited to 10 participants.

Entrance to the Grow Show is free with BBG admission. Hours: Aug. 10, 1 to 5 p.m. and Aug. 11, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. To learn more and to register, go to

Berkshire Backyard

The next meeting of the Berkshire Backyard Beekeepers will take place on Aug. 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Berkshire Botanical Garden. The free meeting will involve season-appropriate discussions and demonstrations using the BBG apiary, weather permitting. The meeting will focus on sustainable beekeeping techniques: raising and sourcing bees locally, managing pests and diseases ecologically, and creating beneficial habitats for honeybees and native pollinators alike. All levels of experience are welcome. See the kiosk at the welcome center for meeting location.