Opinionated Gardener: Nocturnal Daylilies and Other Oddities

11 mins read

Hemerocallis fulva aka the ‘Orange Daylily,’ the wonderfully wild flower that fills the July landscape off-road or in-garden….

After years of taking this pest free, grows in-any-soil, slowly fills all-the-empty-spaces-around-it perennial for granted, the Opinionated Gardener, with time on her hands in semi-retirement, began to wonder just why its flowers open at sunrise and begin to wither at sunset? Done. Spent. In a day. Never to reopen.

And why, despite each perfect flower’s big show of pollen-laden stamens and a single sticky stigma, it never produces seeds? It couldn’t be for the fewness of the flowers; the OG has counted as many as 20 buds in various stages of opening on a single stalk. Surely one out of twenty per stalk has been visited by a pollen-laden bee no matter how brief the opportunity?

This is not to say that seed pods have not been sighted in beds of the OG’s other daylilies. They are in abundance in the clumps of both the species Hemerocallis flava aka ‘Lemon Daylily’ and the tetraploid hybrid Hemerocallis ‘Sparkling Orange.’ It’s just that nary a one has been found in the beds of her first love, the wild ‘Orange Daylily.’ And it hasn’t been because of too small a sample size. There are hundreds in bloom at the height of the season in the OG’s garden. Perhaps, it is because of the lack of a “proper” partner? Or proper pollinator? Or lack of fragrance? Or is it something else?

One has time in retirement to mull such questions.

The Hemerocallis fulva blooming.

A.B. Stout: The Father of Modern Daylilies
Turning to “Daylilies: The Wild Species and Garden Clones, Both Old and New of the Genus Hemerocallis,” the OG hoped the author A. B. Stout, the father of the modern daylily, would provide her with some answers. After all, Stout’s book, published in 1936 and purchased but never read by the OG when it was republished in 1986 was not only touted as “an ageless reference work” it was said to be “the book that the fueled the breeding of the modern daylily.”

But as far as the OG can tell, at least in his book, Stout never addressed the question of why the flowers of her Hemerocallis fulva only bloom for a day. (Hemerocallis, the name bestowed on the flower by Linneaus, means “beauty for a day” in Greek.) But he did supply her with information about the habits of daylilies that if anything indicated that the OG is less than an “observant” gardener. At least when it came to daylilies.

While most “normally” behaving daylilies are strictly daylight-blooming or “diurnal,” Stout noted that there are some that behave “abnormally,” opening only just before sunset and withering at sunrise. Stout called these “nocturnal” daylilies. Imagine that, a daylily that bloomed only at night! There are also varieties that open just after sunrise and remain open way past sunset and ones that actually make it through the night to the next day, albeit a bit worse for the wear. Stout classified these as “extended” daylilies. It appears the OG has two of them and she is about to purchase the nocturnal Hemerocallis cetrina.

Stout did much better on the question of why Hemerocallis fulva produced no seed. He noted that while most daylilies had the best of both worlds, reproducing by both sexual and asexual means, Hemerocallis fulva could only reproduce asexually spreading fast and far by underground rhizomes that sent up clones, lots of them. He said there was good reason why Hemerocallis fulva could not and did not produce seeds.

Hemerocallis fulva ‘Europa’ : Sexy but Sterile:
Stout speculated that Hemerocallis fulva originated in the wilds of Asia and that before it made its way to Europe where it was first recorded in 1567 and then on to the United States with the earliest settlers, it loaded itself up with an extra set of chromosomes. Instead of the two sets of chromosomes (2n) found in the wild plants of the species, there were three sets (3n) of 11 or 33 chromosomes. Odd numbers of chromosomes do not make for easy reproduction. (For an explanation of polyploidy, see the OG’s June article on Siberian Irises)

He further speculated that Hemerocallis fulva probably arose as a “single aberrant seedling either in the wild or in garden culture” While the three sets provided for more genetic material and hence for larger and deeper colored flowers, they also made successful sexual reproduction less likely. Not only could it not successfully cross pollinate or “mate” with other varieties of daylilies, Hemerocallis fulva could not even successfully self pollinate.

Hemerocallis flava: Sexy and Seed Bearing
Hemerocallis flava aka the ‘Lemon Daylily,’ the earliest of the daylilies to bloom in the OG’s early spring garden, also originated in the wilds of Asia. But unlike its cousin Hemerocallis fulva its fragrant blooms remain open far beyond sunset into the next day.

And unlike its 3n cousin it never loaded up with an extra set of chromosomes and therefore is able to propagate by seed and spreading.

Hemerocallis flava seed pod

The seeds produced by Hemerocallis flava and for that matter by all daylilies are either the result of “selfing” where the pollen is supplied by the same flower or by another flower of the same variety or are the result of cross pollination – the tool of hybridizers – where the pollen is supplied by a different variety of daylily. The OG suspects that the bulbous seed capsules she spotted this spring amidst the spent flower stalks of the ‘Lemon Daylily’ were the result of “selfing” as there were no other varieties of daylilies in bloom in the garden at the time to cross pollinate with.

No matter, what ever the source of the pollen, as in the case of all hybrids, the offspring will bear little if any resemblance to its pod parent. As the saying goes, it will “not breed true.” As to why there are two ways to propagate daylilies? The answer is simple: each serves a different purpose. Asexual or vegetative reproduction enables it to produce more of the same; seeds enable it to introduce variety , the spice of life and the goal of every hybridizer. At last count there were 50,000 registered cultivars!

Hemerocallis ‘Sparkling Orange’: Tetraploid
The OG purchased this award winning cultivar from the late Reverend Dr. Joseph Barth of Alna, Maine in 1983. Barth had been hybridizing daylilies in Alna long before he retired in the 70’s to devote himself full time to his experiments with daylilies, using the chemical colchicine to transform diploid (2n) daylilies into robust tetraploids (4n). The only hybrid daylily in the OG’s garden, ‘Sparkling Orange’ has large, thick, textured petals that are more golden than orange; its scapes are sturdy; its fragrance is heady, and it remains open after sunset, long after Hemerocallis fulva has closed. (Armed with a flashlight, the OG recently visited ‘Sparkling Orange’ at one-hour intervals after sunset. She is pleased to report that its flowers remained open until 11:15 pm! )

There is something to be said for semi-retirement….

The Opinionated Gardener would like to thank Nicholas Barth of Boothbay for helping her understand the term “selfing” and for sharing some of his current work with her. Barth has carried on the hybridizing work of his late father Joseph Barth of Alna and has bred 25 new varieties of daylilies, many of which can be found growing at Fieldview Farm in Dresden (see below). He is currently at work developing a pure white daylily.

Fieldview Farm/Barth Daylilies. Dresden, Maine. Daylilies bred by Joseph and Nicholas Barth. The plants recently relocated from Alna to Dresden, Maine on Route 128. Check their website:  www.fieldviewfarmllc.com.

Tranquil Lake Nursery in Rehoboth,Massachusetts has perhaps the largest offering of daylilies including some bred by Joseph Barth. Check their website:  www.tranquil-lake.com

The American Hemerocallis Society, at www.daylilies.org. A lot of good information about the cultivation of daylilies.

Hemerocallis ‘Sparking Orange’

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.