The Old Roadside Elegance

Hemerocallis fulva is the botanical name given to it by Carolus Linnaeus himself. It was already a common European garden perennial in his day, the 18th century. It was even already well established in colonial North America at the time. It was brought over by the earliest settlers because it could survive the journey by sea and wagon cart to a new location, and once planted it grew with little care, and spread quickly. I am talking about the daylily, the orange variety that grows along roadsides all over North America. Anyone can be forgiven for thinking that it is a native plant.

Hemerocallis fulva on North Cayuga Street, Ithaca

I associate H. fulva with New Hampshire. In childhood I saw the naturalized ones growing along the roadsides there, but did not see them in the 1960s on the north shore of Long Island. In hindsight I suspect that the old-fashioned H. fulva had long since been replaced by more recent cultivars everywhere on Long Island. But in New Hampshire the old species, or something close to it, spread out of perennial beds and along the ditches hundreds of years ago.

H. fulva is an upland species native to the Caucasus through the Himalaya to China and Korea. They were widely known in Asian cultures as both edible and medicinal. In 1576 de Lobel published in the Plantarum seu Stirpium Historia a picture of the yellow daylily, H. lilioasphodelus, under the name of Lilioasphodelus luteus liliflorus; in addition he also described H. fulva for the first time under the name Lirioasphodelus phoeniceus, and the first picture of H. fulva was presented.

Hemerocallis fulva at the Cayuga Nature Center

Until the 19th century only wild types were cultivated, but by the end of the century four cultivars had been produced from H. lilioasphodelus. It was not until A.B. Stout of the New York Botanical Garden turned his attention to the daylilies that H. fulva received attention.

In my own opinion it was all downhill from there. While Hemerocallis cultivars are wildly popular, I have never seen one that I found attractive. Many different color flowers have been developed, as well as doubled varieties, varieties with ruffled or ribbed petals. They are almost all incredibly gaudy.

The naturalized H. fulva, or tawny daylily, has a simpicity and elegance that is unmatched. The leaves are long – easily 18 inches in many cases – and lanceolate, arcing up from the crown just below the grounds surface and then drooping downward. The scapes – the flower stems – rise from the crown up to 4 feet, but usually around 3 feet high and are a slightly lighter green than the leaves. The scapes invariable bend slightly under their own weight, always toward the greatest light and are multiply branched. In the slightest breeze they quiver. A passing car will send a ripple of motion down a long roadside stand, leaving the flowers bobbing gently; they are hardly ever perfectly still.

Full flower, unopened buds, and spent blossoms

True to their name (hemero “day” and callis “beauty”) individual blossom last only one day. One of the poignant charms of a large healthy clump is to see the flowers in full bloom, the unopened tubular buds show varying amounts of orange blush, and the withered yellow to brown spent flowers … all side by side. You feel that you are looking at human life itself, it’s early unfufilled promise, its beautiful but often brief realization of that promise, and its inevitable passing.

The plants spread vegetatively and develop extensive, dense clumps quite rapidly. A large clump sends up dozens of multi-branched scapes, so that it can continue blooming for several weeks, although from day to day it is never the same flowers. It is possible that subconsciously we can detect the daily evolution of the relative positions of the flowers as different flowers burst into full bloom, making it hold our interest day after day for reasons we can’t quite put our finger on.