All-American Daylilies

Coastal Gardening

My, how our approach to coastal gardening has changed in just a few years. It’s easy to remember so many of the failed designs of the Fifties and Sixties; overpowering stretches of grass dotted with a few islands of short-lived exotics, home-girdling, yellowing foundation plantings (the “chlorotic flower moat”), or desolate moonscapes.

In the Nineties, gardeners creating a lush garden on the coast are working with a richer palette of plant materials: highly adaptive, proven plants that can handle extremes of temperature, high salinity soils, drought, strong winds and periodic inundations of brackish or salt water. Today’s good news is that the modern daylily fits this profile for success!

According to the All-American Daylily Selection Council, the “discovery” was long and slow in coming. It credits two horticulturists in particular for publicizing this dimension of performance: Dr. Darrel Apps of Bridgeton, New Jersey and Dr. Stewart Nagle of Clear Lake Shores, Texas.

For Professor Nagle, the revelation came after repeated inundations of salt water had cut down everything in his shore-side garden but older varieties of roses and his daylilies. “We would have standing water here a foot deep for a week at a time. For centuries, during storms, salt water would regularly push inland from Galveston Bay. After a while it dawned on me that my daylilies were salt tolerant.”

For Darrel Apps of Woodside Gardens, it took a voyage right out of the pages of a Nineteenth Century plant explorer’s diary to open his eyes. On assignment from the world-famous Longwood Gardens, he was cataloging and acquiring plants on the island of So-Chung Do off the coast of Korea. “We found ourselves climbing a seafront hillside that was extremely steep. When specimens were found, we had to dig with one hand and cling to bushes and outcrops with the other to keep from sliding away. All the time we were at it, we were being lashed by sea spray. This was no doubt a salty environment and the daylily species (probably undisturbed for centuries) we were collecting were perfectly at home there.”

“At one point as I started after a fine specimen, a crowd of Korean women began screaming at us. We had entered a mined area. Now that was a heart-stopping experience.” Reflecting a moment, he laughs, “I guess we can add to the daylily’s list of virtues that it tolerates salt and minefields.”

Beyond salt tolerance, what the daylily contributes to the gardener’s palette is a whole spectrum of colors. Every hue of the rainbow is present save a true blue and a pure black. And these adorn blossoms that range in diameter from one inch to fourteen. The lighter colors handle intense sunlight and heat better. Moreover, their “carrying power” (their ability to be seen) will light up an entire area. The thoughtful gardener will use the darker colors along the shadier sides of a home, in front of lighter colored foliage or structures.

Cautions Darrel Apps, “When buying daylilies for use on properties that experience moderate to strong prevailing winds, pick out those that have shorter ‘scapes’. These are the stalks that hold the bloom aloft and they can vary from 12 to 60 inches in height. Also, by carefully picking pre-tested daylilies, we can have bloom along our coast for 75% to 90% of the normal perennial bloom season. In most places that’s easily from late May to October. It’s not uncommon to have bloom periods of 100 to 150 days in the northern to middle states and nearly 300 days in the south.”

Another excellent way to bring floral color right up onto patios and decks and into the home is by growing daylilies in containers. They’re so easy to move and to maintain. Retirees love them! And for those who are restricted to wheelchairs or who can only do limited yard duty, it reawakens the possibility of gardening once more. Keeping a saucer under the pot will even out the soil moisture content. Don’t worry about emptying the saucer, as daylilies don’t mind wet feet or salty water.

Throughout the coastal plain, there’s one constant enemy: erosion – whether due to wind, flooding or wave action. “Here’s where this plant goes beyond simple beauty and into the realm of high utility,” stresses Apps. The root system forms an enormous soil-anchoring mat. What develops below ground will be at least as big as the foliage showing above ground. It’s one reason that in California daylilies see frequent use in areas prone to mud slides. Similarly, it’s not surprising that when the North Carolina Department of Transportation chose the daylily as its plant of choice for roadside enhancement projects, the engineers cited its ability to prevent erosion.

“For those gardening seaward, the daylily will be a staple,” concludes Apps. Virtually unaffected by insects or disease, reveling in the sea breezes, it can overcome a lot of obstacles while showing off its beauty.