We now turn from the aesthetics of the flower and to the aesthetics of the plant itself. In this post we will look at the plant - its foliage, the shape the foliage makes in a clump, its foliage behavior and durability, its scapes, branches and buds, and finally its flowers in terms of size and carriage on the plant. My aesthetic in regard to the plant is influenced most strongly by nature.
Too many times, we think only of the flowers. They are, after all, the most stunning, eye-catching and memorable part of the daylily, but the flowers only span a short period of time during each year. The plant though, it is with us for much longer. We look at the plants from the time they emerge in the spring until they go down in the late fall, for the senescent foliage types that go into some kind of dormancy in the winter, while the perpetual growing types that are considered evergreen or 'semi-evergreen' are with most of us year-round, except where deep winter snow covers them and freezes them off to the ground. However, even at that, we far too often don't think much about the plant itself beyond whether it is 'a dormant' or 'an evergreen'.
But what if the daylily plant didn't flower? Are any of them pretty enough plants that you would grow them only for their foliage? Mike Huben told me that when training new daylily judges he tells them to imagine they were growing the daylily for its foliage only and that they would even want to cut off the bloom scape in that situation to preserve the beauty of the foliage. I think that is a great training tool in judging the plant, because in that situation, I suspect most of use would throw out most of our daylilies. We far too often let too much unattractiveness with the plant and its foliage slide because we've been hypnotized by the flowers or think that "only the flower matters" (OTFM).
I have always grown daylilies as foliage plants and considered their foliage when placing them in decorative gardens. Some of them have remarkably pretty foliage and I have long used them as a substitute for ornamental grasses in the landscape, with the added benefit that they will also flower for a time each summer. By having used daylilies in this way for many years, I have long looked closely at foliage and thought about what I did or didn't like in daylily foliage. I have observed that various daylily foliage looks more like some types of grasses than others and that there is considerable variation in the visual presentation of the foliage of various daylilies.
Ideally, my very favorite style of daylily foliage is dark green and forms a thick mound of foliage that makes a full, rounded effect with gracefully curved foliage without wide gaps within the clump and with no foliage falling out of the main rounded form. To me, this looks like some of the fuller and more attractive ornamental grass and grass-like plants such as Liriope or Miscanthus. Ideally, such daylily plants will have foliage that holds up to late freezes in spring, has strong disease and pest resistance and holds up in good shape and form throughout the growing season and late into the fall, either going into full dormancy or, if evergreen, not turning into a mound of mush and slime. However, we don't live in a perfect world and in our imperfect reality, there are variations I can live with and some variations I actually like, or at least have learned to like or at the very least, have learned how to use in the landscape and to appreciate when they are combined with the right flower type.
There are many variations in daylily foliage. There are variations in the shade of green of the leaves with plants ranging from near-yellow chartreuse to grass green to dark forest green, while others can show a distinct bluish hue. There are variations in the width and texture of the leaves. Some have very narrow leaves, some very wide. Some plants show ruffles on the edges of the leaves while others are very smooth and tailored. Some plants have tall foliage that stands up and arcs over making a graceful vase effect, while some show leaves that stand straight up like yucca foliage without arching over, while others cascade over making a beautiful waterfall effect especially where the leaves have some ruffling. Some plants show low foliage near the ground. Some plants are very small with narrow fans while others become massive with fans that are very wide. Some make very full clumps without gaps, while others are loose and fall askew showing the ground in areas when looked down upon.
As Hemerocallis and Hosta are closely related, I suspect that many of the phenotypes seen in non-variegated Hosta are achievable in Hemerocallis - black-green leaves, blue leaves, gold leaves, yellow leaves, glossy leaves, matt-powdered leaves, wide leaves, textured leaves, heavily ruffled leaves, etc. We don't see these variations being exploited, but that doesn't mean they couldn't be.
While I have already described above the one main type I look for the most, there are other types I also like. For instance, Hemerocallis fulva 'Korean' has very chartreuse-near golden foliage in the early part of the growing season and this is quite attractive to me. Substantial Evidence also shows this coloring in the new foliage and Frans Hals shows a light foliage color that is a couple of shades darker, somewhere between chartreuse and grass-green, perhaps 'apple-green', and the clump is well shaped and attractive showing a look much like yucca foliage with slight bends or arches to the ends of some of the leaves. Hemerocallis vespertina has tall foliage that cascades over making a large clump and shows distinct ruffles to the leaves with a nice dark green coloring, which I find to be a nice combination and quite attractive.
A seedling I produced from Implausibility x Bali Watercolor is a massive plant with mostly upright foliage of a grass-green tone that produces massive fans and makes a tight clump that is the largest daylily plant I have ever grown.
The grasses that influence my aesthetic in daylily foliage include many diverse types including silver spikegrass, lemongrass, India grass, Gamma grass, Fakahatchee grass, several of the Carex species, Mexican Feather grass, various Miscanthus (Maiden grass) and other grass-like plants such as Liriope, Yucca and some Iris foliage, especially I. sibirica.
Many people do pay attention to the behavior of foliage in the winter, with "dormant" foliage types being highly valued in northern gardens and "evergreen" types being greatly valued in the south. The "dormant" types are often held in suspicion by those in the south, while northerners tend to hold "evergreen" types in suspicion. There is some basis for all these beliefs, but they are not absolutes, as they are so often portrayed. It is true that many "dormant" types show superior performance in the north and fail in the south, while many "evergreen" types show superior performance in the south and fail in the north, but these experience are not to be mistaken for laws or facts. Some "evergreen" types excel in the north, while some "dormant" types grow well even in the far south.
My own garden falls in zone 6/7 and so many things will do well here. However, many tender evergreen types either have little late-frost tolerance or cannot survive in my often snow-free winters with many temperature extremes in any given winter, however, those evergreen types that are hardy and show frost tolerance do well. The dormant types tend to all do well here, though they are not all frost tolerant. Having grown many evergreen types for years here, I have weeded out those that don't work in my garden's climate and have found those that do. In my current breeding, I am not attempting to focus on one foliage type over another.
In the past, I did try to focus on a "dormant-only" program, but I have found that other points are more important to me and that if I work from those evergreen types that are hardy here and frost-tolerant and integrate them with dormant types, I am able to create both dormant types and hardy, frost tolerant evergreen types. I hope to produce plants with beautiful foliage that show hardiness and late-frost tolerance regardless of their foliage type. I don't mean to imply that I expect for every introduction to be hardy in every zone of the North American continent, but I do hope to produce individual plants that are suitable for a wide range of zones - some lines more focused on warm-winter zones and some lines more focused on cold-winter zones with some overlap between those lines. For this reason, I am using both foliage types, with some lines more focused one way and other more focused the other, with many of them a blending of both and producing descendants that can show either foliage type. I do want to produce plants that can flourish in a wide range of environments, but I know that not every plant can do that.
The scape, especially in terms of branches and bud count, are probably the main thing people think of when they think of "plant traits". And why shouldn't they be? They are directly related to the flower. They really don't have anything to do with the qualities of the plant itself, and they are an unattractive nuisance to be removed when the flowering is finished (and the pods are gathered if you are breeding), but they add or detract from the overall presentation of the flower, and play a big role in determining how many of those flowers we get.
Large numbers of branches and buds are popular fetishes and other than "dormant" foliage are the only plant traits that I am aware of that are fetishized at a level near that of the flowers. I will freely admit that I am just as drawn to multi-branching and high bud count as anyone. I am fully obsessed with tall scapes that are so branched they look like trees and with many, many buds. My aesthetic for the scape and its branches is drawn from nature, from certain daylily species (especially H. vespertina) as well as from the general shapes of many bushes and trees, and further, in the Fibonacci sequence and Mandelbrot patterns as seen in the branching of trees specifically, and in many, many other natural patterns, generally. However, I also recognize that not all daylilies need this level of branching.
I will say that, as with branching, I like a lot of buds - as many as possible. However, I don't like high branch number if those branches are close and poorly spaced causing the open flowers to be jammed together and on top of each other. Well-spaced branching is a must. As well for buds, many buds are nice, but if the sequence of opening is not well-spaced, we can see an unattractive "traffic jam" with flowers obscuring each other. So all things must occur in a proper fashion to actually be useful.
Another consideration is that branching and bud count, while heritable, is also heavily influenced by the environment and condition of the plant. Many well-branched or highly budded cultivars must be mature clumps (two or more years of growth in place) to produce the proper number of branches and/or buds. Some cultivars will not produce the numbers of branches or buds seen in their home garden of origin or in greenhouses, when grown in other gardens in different climatic zone or environments (or just in the outdoor garden instead of a greenhouse). Even in the same garden with the exact same care from year to year scape height, branching and bud count can vary depending on environmental conditions in any given year.
The final point I want to touch on in regard to the scape is height. For me, I like all scape heights. I find uses for all types, from short border types to very tall types up to six feet or more, and I like every height in between. However, my favorite range is between 36" up to about 60", with 48" seeming perfect to me - with one big caveat - I don't like scapes of any height that fall over. As I have said previously, the shorter types work well with fewer branches, especially when they have a high scape-to-fan ratio or rebloom and the taller forms seem better to my eye with more branches, even if they do rebloom and/or have a high scape-to-fan ratio. The key with the taller types for me is that the branches don't fall over, are well-spaced and the flowers are presented well on the branches so as not to be jammed together and cause their individual beauty to be obscured.
Daylilies display a wide range of flower sizes from tiny, mini flowers only a couple of inches in size up to giant flowers of twelve inches or more. Most cultivars show flowers that are more in the middle of that range usually between four to six inches. The species flowers tend to be a bit smaller, most in the two to four inch range. A major focus of hybridizing since the beginning has been toward increasing flower size, which has obviously been quite successful as there are many cultivars that display flowers larger than any of the species.
I like all sizes of daylily flowers. Each size has its own niche in the garden, its own unique character and its own beauty. Small flowers are like little butterflies, while the giant flowers are like some mythical flower from a fairy tale. The small and mid-sized flowers are the backbone of the garden, while the giant flowers provide a lovely accent point.
However, in practical terms, they are not all created equally. As with any extreme, the large flowers, while amazing, breathtaking and gorgeous, create certain problems in management that the smaller flowers do not tend to have. The most obvious is that the large flowers, when they wilt, tend to make a big, sloppy, wet, sticky mess that has to be removed every day in order to keep the display looking neat and to keep those wilted monsters from sealing the new flowers shut. In my experience, I like to have a few giant flowers about as accents and for interest, but they are not something I focus on. I am glad that others are focusing on them and would never suggest that they shouldn't but they aren't my focus in spite of my having a few and breeding from some of them.
For me, my very favorite flower size are medium to small, usually in the 2" to 4" or 5" range. I like flowers up to 6" and as I said, I have some much larger, but I prefer that the bulk be medium to small and self-cleaning enough to not require extensive deadheading. True self-cleaning individuals are very special, to me. I also find that the small to medium flowers have the best effect in the landscape, especially for mass-plantings and as colorful background fill, while the large flowers work best as an individual planting or as an accent point.