Barabara Provost has spent many a summer day cupping the faces of daylilies for visitors to see at Elm Bank’s New England DaylilySociety (NEDS) garden. Since the garden’s inception in 2003, she’s been welcoming passers-by to walk the garden’s paths and take a closer look. When I spoke to her at the Society Row plant sale earlier this year, she called after me “Every day is a new day in the daylily garden!”
The garden’s first days were passed by enthusiasts from across New England, amending the soil (it was formerly the site of three swimming pools) and placing donations of their most beloved cultivars in the freshly dug beds. “NEDS members from all over New England, from the mountain tops of Vermont to the Cape all donated plants that would survive in zone 5b.” she recalls.
She agrees with me that fans of the genus Hemerocallis are a dedicated bunch, but the reason they fall head over heels for the plants is simpler than one might think. “The hook is durability, the fact that you can plant a daylily and for forty years not take care of it, and then fertilize it and they’re up and growing again! And after forty years of neglect, they were the only things living in my garden.”
Even though she had been growing daylilies since 1965, the first time Barbara Provost realized how much she loved the genus wasn’t until much later. She remembers the portraits of daylilies taken by a local photographer, Jon Pike, that she saw at Boston’s flower and garden show. “I said- where are these flowers?? I didn’t know that there were people growing so many sizes, colours and shapes!”
Now Barbara grows a staggering 1200 cultivars in her own garden and travails at hybridizing more every season. “I am always looking for that sport, that wonderful new creation. Every year I do crosses that produce about 350 seeds I can grow and test, and that’s all I have room in my dining room to grow!” Her plants include both new and old varieties. “I have a lot of daylilies from my great-grandmother, my mother, my grandmother. . . and I pass them on to my girls.”
That’s part of the reason both Barbara’s garden and the one she tends at Elm Bank are official historic gardens. Some of the oldest varieties, like tall, orange Hemerocallis fulva have been in this region since the 1700’s. Others are as old as the 16th century. Visitors to the garden at Elm Bank can find another nod to the past in the extensive collection of Elizabeth Nesmith’s hybrids. Known as the “Grand Dame of the North” throughout the Daylily Society, Nesmith was the first hybridizer to create a pink cultivar from an orange daylily. Her hybridizing work in the 1930’s won her the coveted Stout Silver Medal Award, which is given every year to the most outstanding new hybrid. Hers and cultivars of other prolific New England hybridizers are showcased in the garden at Elm Bank.
NEDS members vote on new cultivars to add to the scrapbook-like garden after they are introduced at the Daylily Exhibition each year. This year’s exhibition is coming up this weekend on July 23rd at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. “We do have judges coming for the show, and they’re going to stop by Elm Bank, and they’re coming to my garden also.” Provost says some judges will vote on the appearance of the gardens and some will vote on the cultivars themselves.
To the untrained eye, daylilies are nothing more than the orange (fulva) and gold (Stella d’oro) flowers that thrive along roadsides (often referred to as “ditch lilies”) or proliferate in commercial plantings at gas stations and shopping malls. Provost explains that the reason these varieties are so common is because they’re the oldest around- tried and true- but this doesn’t mean they’re a fair representation for the whole genus. Orange and gold are only the first colours of the season to bloom in the daylily garden. On my visit to the NEDS garden at Elm Bank, pink-tinged buds and a myriad of tidy labels that bore names like “Pardon Me”, Arterial Blood”, Twilight Tryst”, and “Cinderella’s Dark Side” hinted at much more variety to come.
Next will come the pinks, reds, purples and more. The blooms themselves can be two-toned, bi-coloured, haloed or eyed. They can also be singles, doubles, spiders, recurved, ruffles, bagels, or unusual forms, depending on the shape. Size, height, and blooming habits (ex. Nocturnal, reblooming) also vary widely.
Hybridizers take all of these traits into account, along with how many blooms per scape (there can be as few as ten and as many as forty buds on a scape, or stem) and how many chromosomes the cultivar possesses. Some of the newest sports that hybridizers lust after have fractal-like patterns on the inside of the bloom, “diamond dusting” that sparkles across the petals or metallic-coloured rims around the edges. “You won’t believe what’s coming down the pike!” Provost proclaims.
All it takes to bring out the best colour in the blooms is the correct pH level and an occasional sprinkling of 10-10-10 fertilizer. Pests to the plant are rare, though all 18 of them (listed on the Daylily Society’swebsite) can be treated effectively with Neem horticultural oil. Other maintenance to the daylily garden is minimal, especially once the shoots become tall enough to shade out weeds in spring. The garden attracts many different pollinators, as well as a few species of dragonfly that frequently rest on the flowers in hopes of catching a meal. Because they are attractive to pollinators and beneficial bugs alike, and because their foliage is tall and green throughout the season, daylilies make great companion plants.
Not only are they a steadfast addition to a mixed or perennial border- they have culinary uses too. When it comes to edible flowers, daylilies are above and beyond the usual blossoms. They have a sweetness unpaired by any other flower I’ve tried, and a lettuce-like texture. In China, where they have been eaten during times of drought and used as medicine for hundreds of years, they are often served deep-fried. The gold ones are sweetest and lend the best flavor for wine making.
Visitors to the daylily garden at Elm Bank can take in all these things, and they are also welcome to collect pollen samples from the flowers to try crossing daylilies themselves. If Barbara is in the garden, she is fond of giving impromptu lessons in how to pollinate the daylilies so that new seeds will grow. “Kids like it too. When they get to science class, or study about plants they can understand because they’ve seen it here in the garden. So I really enjoy doing that.”
Another way Barbara passes on her experience with these special flowers is by documenting the season with photographs. “I get up in the morning and I have my coffee and I run out with my camera and my tripod and try to get some really good shots really early in the morning.” Sometimes she’ll take a scape as cut flowers, “Cut flowers for breakfast and cut flowers for lunch, but at dinnertime they close right up- haha! You can’t have a dinner party. . .”
She claims that there is something blooming every day in the daylily garden, from the start of the season in mid-May until first frost. That’s around the time a cultivar called “Fat Lady Sings” comes into blossom. When it comes to witnessing whether this is true, for some reason I’d rather see for myself than take her word for it!