In upstate New York there are many lilies in bloom through June and July. As you drive along a county road you are likely to pass rafts of orange daylilies. They are native to western Asia, but they have been widely cultivated in the United States and frequently spread away from where they have been planted into the right-of-way and down along the banks of the roadside ditches. Their six-petal splayed trumpets undulate in the turbulent wake of passing cars, bobbing on their long stiff green stems.
The orange “wild type” daylily is Hemerocallis fulva; there are thousands of cultivars developed from it. There are several yellow species (e.g., H. minor, H. middendorffii) and thousands more cultivars developed from them. Daylilies were introduced to Europe from Asia in the 16th century and to North America in the 17th century. But it was not until the 20th century that serious cultivation and hybridization began. It was chronicled and furthered by A.B. Stout of the New York Botanical Garden. His Daylilies, published in 1934, is the definitive text.
“Hemerocallis” translates from the Greek as “beautiful for a day.” Each bloom opens in the morning and withers at the end of the day. In spite of this trait, daylilies can make good cut flowers because there are several buds on a single stem. The successive opening of the buds will make the relative position of the flowers in an arrangement change slightly through the several days.
Daylilies are in the family Hemerocallidaceae. True lilies are in the genus Lilium in the family Liliaceae. While daylilies have basal leaves erupting from ground level, true lilies have whorls of leaves around a stem. The blooms of true lilies also last much longer than those of daylilies. Easter lilies, so popular as potted plants near the eponymous holiday, are true lilies.
The true lilies include “Asiatic” and “Oriental” groups. Asiatic lilies are extremely hardy, often have up-turned blooms and little or no scent. The University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources notes that only the Asiatic and Oriental “divisions” are grown as cut flowers and that they are raised for this purpose in the Netherlands, New Zealand and the northwest United States. The Asiatic lilies (Division I) can be grown in (USDA growing) zones 3 through 9.
The Oriental lilies (Division VII) are more difficult to grow and are often quite fragrant. They tend to be showier than the Asiatic group with frilled edges to the petals and striking bands of color. They are also more often outward or downward facing blooms, although upward facing varieties exist. Their stems are not as sturdy as those of Asiatic varieties.
The “Easter lily” or Lilium longiflorum (Division V) is actually native to the Japanese archipelago. Its association with Easter is derived from its ease of forcing; when grown outside in the northern United States it will flower in August. It is fragrant like the Oriental lilies, but is more often sold as a potted plant than a cut flower.
According to Marie Iannotti, most Easter lilies are grown in a region near the border of California and Oregon. The industry took root there after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 cut off the supply from Japan.
Turk’s cap or Martagon lilies (Division II) are rarely sold as cut flowers, but are common in gardens. Their blooms are pendant, but the petals are dramatically recurved so that the anthers project prominently beyond the corolla.
Canna lilies, like the daylilies, are not true lilies, but their flowers resemble those of the true lilies. The cannas are subtropical and can’t be grown north of Zone 9. They are often grown for their elaborate, waxy, showy foliage and are related to the gingers and the bananas. Cannas are used more often as potted plants than as cut flowers.
In contrast, the calla (or arum) lilies, are most familiar as cut flowers. Like the cannas, they are not true lilies. Their flowers are technically ‘spathes’ or modified leaves and look like a single petal rolled into an open-ended tube. Like the cannas, calla lilies are subtropical and can’t be grown outside in areas that experience any frost.