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Garden Talk

Landscape of the daylily collection with a rainbow

Botanical name: Hemerocallis spp.
Common name: Daylily
Family name: Xanthorrhoeaceae (Grasstree Family)
Native range: Eastern Asia
Location in Duke Gardens: Culberson Asiatic Arboretum
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-9

By Katherine Hale

Marketing & Communications Assistant

Pale pink daylily flowers with purple and yellow highlights

Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) are often considered “the perfect perennial”—beautiful, adaptable, persistent and hardy. This last trait in particular makes them especially popular in northern climates with harsh winters, but they also thrive in the hot and humid Southeastern United States. Daylilies are famous as the quintessential “pass-along” plant—once settled in the landscape, they multiply rapidly, producing dozens of clonal offspring that can be dug up, divided and shared with friends. Given all this, it’s not surprising that daylilies are one of the most commonly grown plants in North America, and they are easily identified even by non-gardeners.

True to their name, most daylily flowers bloom for a single day, though the overall bloom period of each plant extends for several weeks as new flowers continue to open. The “lily” part is a bit more misleading—though they resemble true lilies (Lilium spp.) and were originally placed in the lily family, more recent genetic analysis has determined that daylilies belong to one of the many smaller and more obscure plant families formerly considered part of the lily family.

There are 16 species of wild daylilies across eastern Asia, two of which have naturalized extensively in North Carolina. One is the orange daylily (H. fulva), also known as the “ditch lily” for its habit of growing along roadsides. The other is the lemon lily (H. lilioasphodelus, previously known as H. flava), which has smaller yellow flowers. These two species are also the parents of tens of thousands of daylily cultivars in a fantastic array of colors and shapes, often with fragrant scents, multiple petals with edged “ruffles,” a contrasting “eye” at the center of the flower, and/or a glittery appearance known as “diamond dust.” Add to this the thousands of new daylily cultivars registered each year with the American Daylily Society by increasingly ambitious breeders, and the sky really is the limit! A handful of daylily species also defy expectations by blooming at night, most notably the citron daylily (H. citrina), whose flowers open late in the day and closes early the next morning.

Yellow daylily flowers with red stripes and curled petals
Longtime visitors to Duke Gardens may remember that the daylily collection in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum was originally between Flowers Drive and the pond, en route to the Durham-Toyama Sister Cities Japanese Pavilion. It has since been moved to a new location adjacent to the entrance to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. Here, visitors can enjoy dozens of award-winning daylily cultivars, with each plant labeled with its name, breeder, registration year and award year. Highlights include ‘Oriental Ruby’ (registered in 1968, Lenington All-American Award winner in 1979), ‘Mary’s Gold’ (registered in 1984, Lenington All-American Award winner in 2005), 'Mayor of Munchkinland' (registered in 2010; Stout Award winner in 2021), and ‘Spacecoast Sea Shells’ (registered in 2003, Lenington All-American Award winner in 2020). These cultivars were collected by Duke Gardens horticulturists over the years, and many are now obscure or rarely offered by nurseries—making the collection a landmark of horticultural history as well as a beautiful display.

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Photos from top: A rainbow adjacent to the daylily beds in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum; the award-winning cultivars 'Spacecoast Sea Shells' and 'Mayor of Munchkinland'; the daylily beds in peak bloom in late June. All photos by Orla Swift.

The daylily collection in peak bloom