Historic Daylilies


Today's garden centers and catalogs overflow with daylilies: double, spider, tetraploid and even "evergreen" varieties. Although the perennial that we call daylily was grown in ancient China, it did not begin to appear in most American gardens until after 1970. The historic, common "tawny" daylily was used as a ground cover and populated rights-of-way and highways until gardeners began discovering her 20th-century descendants.


The earliest records of daylilies place them in China around 2700 B.C., where they were used as food and in folk remedies. They were brought to Europe during the early Renaissance--perhaps by Marco Polo--and to the New World by English colonists. The variety H. fulva "Kwanso" was named in 1712 by the German naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer, who traveled widely in Japan. Hemerocallis flava, or lemon lily, and H. fulva, or tawny daylily, both of which originated in China, were named by the Swedish botanist Carl Linneus mid-century, and Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg introduced a variegated Kwanso cultivar in 1784.

Nienteenth Century

Nineteenth-century daylilies resembled Linneaus' plants; most were classified as "variants" of H. fulva. H. dumortier, native to Japan, Korea and Siberia, came back with the Belgian botanist C. Morren. H. fulva variants augustifolia and disticha flowered well in tropical climates but faded in cooler areas; they hailed from India, Macao and Southern China. More variants of H. fulva arrived with travelers from Asia throughout the century. Most differed from original cultivars, mainly in hardiness and period of bloom.

A. B. Stout

In 1911, the New York Botanical Garden hired a Wisconsin botany professor as its director of laboratories. Arlow Burdette Stout became known as the Father of the Daylily as he used a handful of Asian daylilies to study reproduction in flowering plants for the next 36 years. His work with daylilies produced over 100 new hybrids, adding new colors and patterns to daylily's palette. Stout created "Europa," "Circe," "Bagdad" and dozens more daylily cultivars still growing in American gardens. He inspired generations of amateur hybridizers, beginning with the publication of his book "Daylilies" in 1934, which was reprinted in 1986 as "Daylilies: The Wild Species and Garden Clones, Both Old and New, of the Genus Hemerocallis."


Building on Stout's experiments, hobbyists and academics created hundreds more hybrids with names like "Blue Orchid," "Chloe," "Lipstick," "Pleasant Hours," "Le Moine Bechtold" and "Lady Fingers." Plants were names for colors, family and friends, places--even for other hobbyists. Some plants achieved unusual color variations and forms through polypoidy--abnormal cell division in seed division. Early crosses were "diploids," or plants inheriting one set of chromosomes from each parent. "Kwanso" is a "triploid," and modern "tetraploid" combinations are prized.

Stella and the Siloams

In 1950, the newly formed Hemerocallis Society of America established the "Stout Award" for exceptional new plants. Pauline Henry of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, introduced her broad-petaled "Siloam Satin" in 1963, the first of a modern daylily dynasty--and took the Stout Silver Medal. By 1970, plants with names like "Merry Christmas" and "Buttons and Bows" were appearing in garden catalogs but not yet in garden centers. The historic era of daylilies finally ended with Walter Jablonski's revolutionary, compact rebloomer "Stella de Oro" in 1975.

Keywords: historic daylilies, tawny daylily, perennial gardens

About this Author

Chicago native Laura Reynolds has been writing for 40 years. She attended American University (D.C.), Northern Illinois University and University of Illinois Chicago and has a B.S. in communications (theater). Originally a secondary school communications and history teacher, she's written one book and edited several others. She has 30 years of experience as a local official, including service as a municipal judge.