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24 HOURS : Life Is Short for the Daylily

July 06, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Each flower blooms for but a day, hence the common name daylily, and the scientific name Hemerocallis , which in the Greek means something like "beauty for a day." But each spike can hold as many as a dozen blossoms that open one after the other, and a healthy clump may produce as many as two dozen spikes.

So though the individual flowers last but a day, daylilies seem to be in flower all summer long.

Daylilies are one of summer's most reliable perennials, coming into bloom as spring's flowers fade. The common lemon yellow is an almost indestructible plant, used even in freeway plantings, but all daylilies are tough, and easy to grow. They stand the heat of the inland valleys, and some actually require it (the reds especially). And they're bothered by few pests (but watch for snails in coastal gardens). In the hottest areas, they may look best facing east, where they receive afternoon shade, and in all areas they easily tolerate a half day of shade, much like agapanthus.

Their arching, fountaining foliage can be the backbone of any perennial garden; so avoid the few deciduous kinds. The flowers will stand well clear of the foliage on sturdy stems though they look more dramatic against a dark background. Most grow three to four feet tall, in clumps as wide, but there are also useful miniatures and in-betweens for smaller gardens.

Culturally, there is little to do. Average soil preparation is adequate (add organic matter), and they benefit if fertilized in spring and again in mid-summer. They don't require too much water, but neither are they likely to rot from overindulgence. It isn't even necessary to trim off dead flower spikes. In time, daylilies can be divided, usually in late fall or early spring.

What you must do, however, is hunt, for though there are thousands of daylily cultivars, you will not find them at nurseries, perhaps because they do not bloom well in nursery containers. Two of the larger specialty growers in Southern California are Greenwood Nursery (P.O. Box 1610, Goleta, CA 93116) and Cordon Bleu (P.O. Box 2033, San Marcos, CA 92069). Both have color catalogues that cost $1.

These growers sell to the beginner and serious collector alike. Some of the prices for the newest varieties are very high; older varieties are the better buy. You won't go wrong trusting the grower to help with the enormous task of picking several from the hundreds available.

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