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Weekend Life

Learning to Grow: Planting the perfect perennial

If you ask a gardener, “What is the perfect perennial?” chances are you will get as many different answers as there are gardeners. 

Ask instead, “What criteria determines a perfect perennial?” and you might get the same answer from all of them.  A plant that requires little maintenance, is disease resistant, thrives in all types of soil, blooms reliably, has many cultivars from which to choose color and flower form. 

These criteria can be used to describe any number of plants, but they are especially applicable to the daylily – Hemerocallis.

Daylilies are native to Asia where they were cultivated for food and medicine.

In the 1700s, they were brought to Europe as an ornamental plant and given the genus name Hemerocallis, meaning “day” and “beauty,” referencing the fact that a single bloom lasts for only one day. 

Since the early 1900s the number of daylily varieties has grown from four to more than 74,000. The modern cultivars offer such a wide variety of bloom times, flower forms and colors we can enjoy them throughout the summer even though the beauty of a single bloom is so short-lived.

It’s hard to believe that one of the forbearers of all those cultivars is the orange daylily often seen growing wild along roadsides. Hemerocallis fulva, commonly known as Ditch Lily or Tawny Daylily, has large orange-red flowers with wavy margins and a center stripe of paler orange down the middle of each petal. 

The flowers are borne on 6-inch scapes above bright green leaves. It is infertile and does not set seed, but spreads by rhizome. 

If left unattended, it can form large clumps and displace native habitat over time, which is why it is on the invasive species list in many states, including Illinois. 

The ability to produce runners away from the mother fan differentiates H. fulva from non-invasive, clump-forming hybrid daylily cultivars in which this characteristic is usually bred out.  

While I still appreciate the beauty of H. fulva in my garden, I am slowly replacing it with more desirable varieties such as Summer Wine and Chicago Fire.

Whether old-fashioned variety or modern cultivar, I consider the daylily the perfect perennial.

• Suzanne Thorne is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information.

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