Day lilies are a very popular perennial, mainly because they are easy to grow, low maintenance, and very tolerant of neglect. They come in a wide range of colors and sizes, which makes them a good fit for almost any garden.
It’s not hard to find a good selection of day lilies at a local nursery or garden center, and online nurseries carry even more choices that can be mailed to you.
If you’re ready to add this hardy perennial flower to your garden, here’s a complete guide on how to grow and care for day lilies.
Everything You Wanted to Know About Day Lilies
Day lilies (or daylilies) are tough perennials favored by many gardeners. The botanical name for daylily, Hemerocallis, comes from the Greek words hemera and kallos, which translate to “day beauty.”
True to its name, daylily flowers only last a single day. They bloom in the morning and fade by the end of the day. However, each plant has many stems filled with blossoms, so they remain in bloom for about a month.
You can find day lilies in shades of orange, red, yellow, purple, cream, and pink. The only shades lacking are blue and true white.
Day lilies come in a wide array of stunning colors. You can find one in almost any shade and size for your garden.
Daylilies grow in clumps that get a few feet wide and tall. Flower scapes come out in spring or summer and can grow anywhere from 1 foot tall for dwarf varieties to 6 feet tall. The foliage is long, narrow, and an attractive deep green color.
Most gardeners can add a daylily or several to their garden, since they grow in USDA hardiness zones 3-9.
Benefits of Growing Daylilies
Day lilies are a very showy perennial that will brighten up your garden and return year after year with little effort on your part.
Most gardeners love daylilies for their toughness. They tolerate poor soil and a wide range of soil conditions as well as periods of drought. Plants are rarely bothered by pests or diseases and are some of the best low maintenance plants you can grow.
There’s also a huge variety of choice when it comes to day lilies. There are thousands of cultivars to choose from and almost endless color options. Smaller cultivars are great for compact spaces and taller cultivars make a big statement.
Finally, the daylily is a very versatile landscape plant. You can use it in a variety of ways, from mass plantings to a container garden.
Day Lily vs. True Lily
Despite the fact that daylilies have “lily” in their name, they aren’t true lilies at all.
Though they look very similar, daylilies aren’t actually true lilies. They belong to a completely different genus of plants and have their own unique characteristics.
True lilies grow from bulbs and belong to the genus Lilium. Daylilies, on the other hand, grow from fleshy roots and are from the genus Hemerocallis.
Though they do have a similar appearance, there are a few main differences. Lilies send up a single, central flower stem when they bloom. Blooms have six petals and last for a week or longer. Leaves grow out from the stem and spiral up the plant.
Day lilies send up multiple scapes that each bear several flowers. The flowers only last for a day and are made up of three petals and three sepals. The sepals are easy to mistake for petals but are smaller and beneath the petals. Leaves grow out of the base of the plant, at soil level.
Toxicity Caution: Something to keep in mind is that both lilies and daylilies can be very toxic to cats (mildly toxic, but not fatal, to dogs). Think before planting if you have cats that roam your garden.
Daylily Types and Cultivars
With thousands of different varieties of day lilies in existence, it might seem difficult to pick which ones you want to grow.
There are many types of day lilies, and it can get confusing to sort them all out. Besides the ‘standard’ daylily, there are ones with double or ruffled petals, miniature varieties, ones that rebloom, and many more.
To make things easier, daylilies are often categorized into different types based on flower size, bloom time, etc. There are also some standout cultivars that grow well in almost any region.
Different Types and Categories
Here are a few of the most typical ways day lilies are categorized:
- By Species– There are several different species of daylily. If you’ve ever seen an orange variety growing in abundance along the roadside, it’s most likely Hemerocallis fulva. Other species to note are H. citrina, which blooms at night, and H. flava, which has a citrus scent.Most varieties of day lilies for sale are hybrids that have been bred for desirable characteristics. You’ll see them labeled simply as Hemerocallis ‘Cultivar Name’.
- By Bloom Time– Another common way of categorizing daylilies is by when they start to bloom. The earliest varieties start blooming in spring (early or mid-spring, depending on your climate). Later varieties don’t start until summer. Buying a mix of early-, mid-, and late-blooming varieties will ensure you have a continuous display of flowers almost until frost.
- By Flower Color– If you’re looking for a certain color to add to your garden, it’s probably easiest to search for day lilies that match. There are many cultivars in several shades of each available color.
- By Flower Form– There are a few different types of flower petals that each look slightly different. Ruffled varieties can have very ornate petals that ruffle and crinkle at the edges. Trumpet varieties have the standard daylily look, and double day lilies have an extra row of petals. Recurved varieties have petals that curve backwards, giving flowers an almost ball-shaped appearance.
A recurved daylily has petals that curl backwards. It can have an almost spherical look that is very unique.
- By Height– Height is judged by how tall the flower scapes grow, not how tall the foliage gets. Miniature varieties can be as small as one foot, and taller varieties reach up to six feet in height.
- Reblooming– Some day lilies will keep blooming intermittently after the first major flowering period. These varieties are called reblooming.
- Evergreen vs. Dormant– Most daylily varieties are dormant, which means the foliage dies back to the ground in the fall. Several varieties are evergreen or semi-evergreen, which means they keep their foliage all winter. Evergreen varieties are best suited for warmer, milder climates and dormant ones for colder climates.
Top Cultivar Picks
The hardest part of planting day lilies might be deciding which cultivar to choose! There are so many options to pick from, but here are a few of the top ones:
- ‘Stella D’Oro’– One of the most well-known cultivars, ‘Stella D’Oro’ is always a solid pick. It blooms happily in almost any conditions and puts out numerous yellow flowers all summer. Grows 10-12 inches tall.
- ‘Primal Scream’– One of the best orange cultivars, ‘Primal Scream’ has large, bold flowers with twisted and ruffled edges. Grows about 3 feet tall.
- ‘Sunday Gloves’ or ‘Joan Senior’– No daylily blooms a true white color, but these two cultivars are close. They both have creamy white petals that get pale yellow at the center. ‘Sunday Gloves’ is reblooming and ‘Joan Senior’ is evergreen. Grows 2-3 feet.
White day lilies are a creamy white-yellow color rather than a true white, but they still look very elegant and attractive.
- ‘Nosferatu’ or ‘Bela Lugosi’– Both of these cultivars are good choices for a purple-blooming variety. Both have dark purple flowers with yellow to lime green centers. ‘Bela Lugosi’ is semi-evergreen. Grows 2-3 feet tall.
- ‘Little Grapette’– This is an excellent compact cultivar. Plants top out at 12-18 inches tall. Flowers are miniature (about 2 inches across) but a vibrant purple color with lime green throats.
- ‘Going Bananas’ or ‘Happy Returns’– Both of these choices have beautiful, large yellow flowers and rebloom throughout the summer. Both are also fragrant. Grows about 18-24 inches tall.
- ‘Ruby Spider’– This is a red cultivar with ruby petals and a yellow-gold throat. Flowers are about 9 inches across on average and truly stunning. Grows about 3 feet tall.
- ‘Strawberry Candy’– This is a pretty pink cultivar with petals that are pale pink and have darker pink stripes toward the center. Plants rebloom and grow about 2 feet tall.
- ‘Desert Flame’– The petals on this cultivar are a combination of orange and red with gold at the center. Plants bloom mid-summer and rebloom in the fall. Grows about 3 feet tall.
How to Grow Day Lilies
Day lilies grow from tuberous roots and are almost always propagated by division. They don’t come true from seed, which means that plants grown from seed rarely resemble the parent plant.
In order to make sure you get the cultivar you want, you should either buy a nursery grown plant or get one for free when someone you know divides their daylilies. Day lilies will not come true from seed, and many cultivars are sterile.
Your best option for planting day lilies is to buy the cultivars you want locally or through an online nursery. Online orders usually ship as potted plants or bare roots plants (no soil or pot).
When to Plant Daylilies
If you are getting your day lilies by mail, it’s best to plant them a few days after receiving them. Most nurseries are pretty good about shipping out plants at the time of year they need to be planted.
The main planting time for a daylily is early spring, although you can also plant in fall if you miss the spring season.
Try to get your plants in the ground while the weather is still cool in the spring, or plant them at least 6 weeks before the first frost in the fall. You want to make sure the roots of your plants can get well established before cold weather comes.
Where to Plant + Growing Conditions
Even though day lilies are very adaptable and can grow in less than ideal conditions, there are a few things to keep in mind when selecting your planting location:
- Sunlight– There’s no question about it. Day lilies grow and bloom best in full sunlight, which means they need at least six hours of sun each day. Many cultivars tolerate partial shade, but you need to plant them in a sunny spot for the best blooms.
For the best flower display, be sure to plant your day lilies in full sun. Other than that, they will adapt to most growing conditions, although they don’t like their roots to get soggy.
- Soil– The most important soil consideration for daylilies is planting them in a well-drained site. They tolerate many types of soil and even poor fertility but will do much better in dry rather than wet soil.
- Amendments– If you really want to make you plants virtually maintenance-free, amend your soil with compost before planting. This will give them enough nutrients for a year or two, which means you won’t need to worry about fertilizing.
- Spacing– Daylilies can be planted close together for a mass effect, but otherwise they should be spaced 12-13 inches apart to allow for good airflow.
- Containers– Compact varieties of day lilies can be grown in large containers. Use a good quality potting soil that has good drainage and fertilizer or organic materials already added. Make sure your pots have holes in the bottom to let water drain out.
How to Plant Day Lilies
Before planting, make sure you weed your planting area and add any soil amendments that may be needed. Both container grown day lilies and bare root plants can be planted using the same method.
First, loosen the soil with a sturdy garden shovel in a circle that’s about 2 feet in diameter. Then, dig holes that are slightly deeper than the roots of your plants, which is usually about a foot deep.
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Mound up a little soil in the middle of each hole. and place your plants so that the center rests on the mound and the roots go out and slightly down. If your plants are rootbound, gently loosen the roots with your fingers and spread them out.
Make sure that the crown of each plant is at soil level or no more than one inch below the soil. (The crown is the part where the stem meets the roots.) You can now fill in around all your plants with soil and firm it down with your hands.
Once all your day lilies are planted, water them thoroughly and deeply. If there were any air pockets, you may notice the soil level sink after watering. If this happens, just fill in with more soil.
Daylily Care Tips
Daylily care is pretty easy and straightforward. It’s important to water your new plants as needed while they get established, but mature plants are fairly drought tolerant.
The biggest task for day lilies is probably deadheading. Once they start blooming, it’s best to deadhead them every day or at least a few times a week. This cleans up dead flowers and also encourages your plants to keep blooming.
You can deadhead by simply snapping off the whole flower (not just the petals) at the end of the stem. Some of the darker varieties can stain your hands, so wear gloves if you prefer.
Deadheading is the biggest maintenance task for day lilies. It can seem like a chore since flowers fade so quickly, but doing it regularly will keep your plants blooming at their best.
Once all the flowers on a stem have bloomed and faded, you can cut it back to the ground (or not). Clean up dead foliage each spring before new growth emerges.
Fertilizing usually isn’t necessary, but for stronger blooms, you can add compost or fertilize with a balanced 10-10-10 formula each spring. Keep in mind that your plants likely will not bloom the first year you plant them, but you can look forward to flowers next year.
Dividing Day Lilies
Your day lilies will gradually form clumps that eventually get crowded and need to be divided every 3-5 years. If you notice sparse flowering or plants that are right on top of each other, it’s probably time to divide them.
Dig up your daylilies one clump at a time by using a shovel to cut a wide circle around them so that you can get as much of the root system as possible. Lift each clump completely out of the ground with your shovel.
You can put the plants on a tarp to divide them or simply work on the ground. Use a sharp knife or garden spade to divide each clump into several sections, each with a good clump of roots.
Replant one of these smaller day lilies and spread the rest around your garden or give them away. Cut the foliage back before planting them, so their energy focuses on establishing a good root system.
Dividing your plants every 3-5 years is important for keeping them vigorous. If plants get too crowded, they will stop producing as many flowers and will be more susceptible to disease.
In most areas, daylilies can be divided in late summer or early fall (after they’ve finished blooming). You can also do it in early spring before plants start blooming.
Pests and Problems
Fortunately, day lilies are often pest- and disease-free. In fact, deer are likely to be the biggest pest because they love snacking on daylily flowers and foliage. Use a spray to keep them away or try one of these homemade deer repellents.
Besides deer, you may occasionally have to deal with aphids, thrips, slugs, or spider mites. Severe infestations can be taken care of with a natural insecticidal soap. Slugs are best deterred by placing crushed egg shells in a circle around your plants.
A relatively new disease has started to affect daylilies across the U.S. It’s a type of rust, which is a fungal disease that can seriously damage the foliage of your plants.
Rust spreads very quickly and can infect other nearby plants. Remove and destroy diseased foliage (which will be streaked yellow-orange) immediately. Do not compost it, or the disease will grow in your compost pile.
The biggest pests you’ll most likely have to deal with are deer and slugs. Both can do some major damage but can be kept under control with natural methods.
The best prevention for fungal diseases is to space plants properly to allow for lots of airflow. You can also buy rust-resistant cultivars if it becomes a problem.
Adding Day Lilies to Your Garden
Here are a few design ideas for adding daylilies to your garden:
- Plant in masses for a dramatic effect and use a mix of colors and bloom times.
- Use smaller varieties in the front of borders or larger ones at the back of the border.
- Plant in a naturalized area or meadow garden.
- Certain varieties are great for a pollinator or butterfly garden.
- Mix with other colorful perennials like purple coneflower, black eyed Susans, Shasta daisy, liatris, and bee balm.
- Underplant with daffodils or another type of spring bulb. The daylily foliage will cover the dying bulb foliage once it starts fading.
Day lilies also make excellent cut flowers. The trick is to cut off flower stems when the buds are just about to open. They can look attractive in a vase of water for up to a week this way.
The daylily is also an edible plant (though not for pets) and a popular food in many cultures. The buds and flowers can be eaten raw, deep fried, or sauteed. Roots and leaves are also edible, and all parts have a mildly peppery flavor.
Hopefully, you know by now exactly what makes day lilies such a popular perennial plant and also how to add them to your own garden. All you have to do is plant them once and enjoy them for years to come!
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.