March 31, 2020

‘Beautiful for a Day:’ The Fleeting Wonder of a Day Lily

Hemerocallis ‘Woodside Rhapsody’

Janine Pineo Photo | Hemerocallis ‘Woodside Rhapsody’

• By Janine Pineo •

I was zipping along Route 1 with my grandmother down through Sullivan the other day when I saw a sign that had disappeared last year.

“Daylilies,” it read.

I almost slammed on the brakes until I realized I could stop the next day on my return trip. I just hoped the sign wouldn’t disappear and I wouldn’t be pressed for time.

It didn’t and I wasn’t.

After turning onto Route 183 the next afternoon, I came to a fork in the road about a mile later that had another “Daylilies” sign pointing down Thorne Road. I wound down the road for a couple more miles until I came to the last sign.

I parked the car and headed toward a greenhouse in the back corner of the yard before noticing someone working in a large, neat garden bed.

It was Dick Keen, day lily grower extraordinaire.

And a man ready to hang up his day lily hat and find something else to do after 40 years.

Mr. Keen, you see, closed things up last year (hence the missing sign) but decided to open up again this year for a “Last Chance We Are Cleaning Out the Beds” sale (hence the returned sign).

We got to talking as he walked me to the greenhouse to look at pictures of the more than 40 day lily cultivars he still has for sale. He talked about his decades-long career at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania and his obsession with day lilies. And there was some crazy talk about how he had 700 varieties at one time.

All the while I was mesmerized by pictures of vibrant, glowing day lilies. I couldn’t admire the actual blooms because none was yet flowering, but I could dream.

At $12 each, I dreamed two right into my car. Hemerocallis ‘Optic Elegance’ and ‘Woodside Rhapsody’ came home with me that day. ‘Optic Elegance’ is a creamy yellow overlaid with a hint of blush with a pink to red eye. ‘Woodside Rhapsody’ is a bit more dramatic with its deep purple hue and an eye that looked more chartreuse than anything else.

While my collection can’t begin to rival Mr. Keen’s – even as he cleans out the beds – it is easy to see how one can become a day lily zealot. On the American Hemerocallis Society Web site, there are more than 58,000 registered cultivars out there.

Day lilies harken back a few thousand years to China. According to the Australian Daylily Society, the plant was used as a food and medicine source by the Chinese long before there was a written language. By the 16th century, the day lily had arrived in Europe, and a century later was crossing the Atlantic to the New World.

Swedish naturalist Linnaeus named the day lily Hemerocallis from the Greek “hemera” meaning day and “kallos” for beauty. The flowers are “beautiful for a day.”

It wasn’t until the early 1900s, however, that a revolution occurred in the day lily world. Enter one Arlow Burdette Stout, who was fascinated with his mother’s day lilies as a child and wound up head of the New York Botanical Garden, where he conducted more than 50,000 cross-pollination experiments on day lilies. In the end, he created more than 100 viable hybrids and pretty much launched the craze that is day lily hybridization.

Whatever you do, don’t let the “mad scientist” terminology scare you when you start to read the plant descriptions. A dormant diploid means that the plant dies back to the ground in the winter (the dormant part) and that it contains 22 chromosomes, which means it usually resembles the old-fashioned day lilies that grow wild. A tetraploid means someone has been monkeying with the chromosomes, doubling them to 44. The tetraploids are more intense – well, everything is doubled – in color and in sturdiness.

The flowers have classifications, too. There’s triangular, where the petals form a triangle shape, while circular looks like it sounds. Double means the petals are just that. The old-fashioned varieties are considered star-shaped, and there are some that are even more extreme called spider-shaped.

Hemerocallis ‘Hyperion’

Janine Pineo Photo | Hemerocallis ‘Hyperion’

One of my favorite day lilies is ‘Hyperion,’ which is a dormant diploid. Its star-shaped, lemony flowers are scented and the plants are magnificent: tall at 3 feet plus and breezy-looking.

Similar to ‘Hyperion’ is the elegant ‘Catherine Woodbery’ with its pink hue and green throat.

I adore ‘Cedar Waxwing,’ a dormant tetraploid with its triangular, orchid-pink blossoms. I found it a few years back on the Fieldstone Gardens Web site (, which still carries it.

I’ve got a couple of ‘Barbara Mitchell’ planted by my garden shed. This dormant diploid is a coral-pink but its flowers tend to be circular.

Planted with it is a ‘Custard Candy,’ a dormant tetraploid that is cream yellow, sporting a maroon eye-zone and a green throat.

Then there are the clumps of the unknowns about the yard. Given to my mother by a neighbor long ago are two similar varieties, one a velvet red with an orange-yellow eye and the other a maroon-red with an orange-yellow eye. And, of course, “wild” orange ones are planted here and there, along with varieties planted without tags that will forever keep me guessing.

So head on down to Dick Keen’s “last chance” sale and see the wonders of science for yourself. My guess is that the plants are blooming in more ways than one.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in July 2007.