What Makes A Good Daylily?
“What makes a good daylily?” This is a question I often ask myself, and I have been thinking on it for many years. I also often ask other daylily people this question. I get some interesting answers, but in most cases, the answers people give usually starts with the flower and only concerns the flower. My personal answer starts well below the flower with the roots.
The root of a plant is the base from which all the rest of the plant stems. The ability of the roots to uptake nutrients is the source of much of the ability any given plant has to perform. So why do we rarely hear much discussion of the roots of daylilies? When digging and dividing, or planting new divisions, we all encounter the roots of our daylilies. It is true that they are hidden from view on our plants in the garden or field, but we still see them with some frequency, so why do we not think about them much? Of course, I suppose we could often ask this same thing about every part of the daylily except the flower. It is a rare daylily breeder indeed who is giving a lot of focus to any part of the daylily other than the flower.
Since we have all seen the roots on our daylilies when we plant them or divide them, do you pay much attention to the variations in daylily roots? This is something that I pay attention to. I have noted a wide range in root structure from small rounded roots to long, thin roots to long, thick roots to roots that produce rhizomatous growth. Some daylilies produce new fans that are just barely connected to each other and are easily divided, while some grow all their new fans from a solid main crown. The roots of each crown type can be very variable.
From a grower’s perspective, is there much difference in performance based on the roots? Well, in my experience, the answer is yes. I have noticed that the cultivars with small, short roots often are small plants that may not have very vigorous performance (except in some very small dwarf forms). Plants with long roots with lots of feeder roots coming off the main larger roots seem to show a very vigorous performance. Rhizomatous growth may not be desirable for everyone, but for covering an area, it is very desirable. However, in a garden situation where contained clumps are desired, rhizomatous growth is very undesirable. I would note though that I have never seen a rhizomatous type that was a weak plant with poor performance.
The variability of roots and crown structure is very interesting and may be something to which more attention should be paid. It is my experience, for example, that dividing a clump where each fan is separate from the rest in the clump is much easier than dividing a clump where every fan grows from one main crown. While this may not make much difference if you are only concerned with growing the plant in your garden, for breeders and sellers, this can make considerable difference. I would note that I have personally noticed much more crown rot in those types that have one crown from which all the fans grow and that must be cut apart to make divisions, than in other types. The cutting apart of the crown must be much more stressful when dividing than simply pulling apart individual fans.
So should a breeder never use a plant with a joined crown or that shows small roots? I would say no, because sometimes there is a desirable trait that is found with undesirable traits, and the art of the breeder is to recombine desirable traits while eliminating undesirable traits. I have a few breeder plants that show various undesirable traits. There is no way around this, especially when a given plant may have a very unique trait or offer some other very desirable traits. The key to using such plants is to mate them with plants that show good balancing traits. So a plant with one solid crown could be mated to a plant that multiples through making multiple individual fans and the offspring could be deselected based on solid single crowns. In another example, a plant with smallish roots that is not a very vigorous grower could be mated to plants with strong roots and vigorous growth and the offspring deselected for small roots and weak growth. Also bear in mind that not all goals are achieved in one generation, and some traits can be recessive in nature.
One example I would site is Grand Masterpiece, which is a lovely dark purple diploid with very strong rust resistance, but the roots are small and the plant is not a vigorous grower. However, Grand Masterpiece (either the dip or the tet conversion) can produce offspring that are much more vigorous with much stronger root growth. As well, Super Purple, one of the parents and of Grand Masterpiece, is a vigorous plant with strong root growth, so the evidence in that case suggests that Grand Masterpiece has the genes to produce more vigorous offspring and better root systems, as evidenced by some of its offspring. Would I recommend Grand Masterpiece as a garden plant? No. Would I recommend Grand Masterpiece as a breeding plant? Yes.
It is important to understand that some of the things we may grow as breeders are not desirable garden plants, but carry special genes that make them useful breeding plants. It might be a good idea to be very clear as to which cultivars are which, as average gardeners who accidentally buy a highly-touted breeding plant expecting it to be something special may think twice before they invest in more highly-touted daylilies. The public will often equate high price with special performance or garden value, but it is far too often the case that the most expensive daylilies aren’t great garden plants. Instead, such plants may only be of use to a breeder who knows how to select proper mates for them. We need to be careful not to turn off potential gardening customers. With rust on the horizon and more people having less disposable income, I am afraid that we cannot afford to turn off potential gardening customers. I am all for breeder’s plants, but they should be noted as such. I have a few very expensive plants that have many undesirable traits and I would never recommend them for the garden, but I greatly value one or two traits that I am extracting from them, struggling to recombine onto much more desirable garden plants.
When looking at what makes a good daylily, I am first and foremost concerned with how any given daylily performs in a real garden, an average garden. Most average gardeners don’t have the resources to give any particular plant much pampering. It is true that many expensive modern daylilies perform beautifully when kept under shade cloth with automatic irrigation and feeding of very exacting fertilize formulas while growing in expensive and refined growing mixes, but those same daylilies often look terrible and perform even worse in a real garden situation with blazing sun, little or no irrigation or fertilize and average (or worse) soil. So when I look for a good daylily, I am first and foremost looking for a daylily that thrives in average, real-world garden situations. Roots may play a very big role in that, but genetics and selection will play a big role also.
We can’t expect plants bred from weak stock to come out strong and vigorous in the first generation, unless, as in the example above of Grand Masterpiece, we know something of the parents of the cultivar and then mate the cultivar to vigorous plants that balance its weaknesses. Even then, we may have to go to a second or third generation to combine all the desirable traits of performance and flower that we wish to see. We also can’t expect plants bred in highly pampered conditions to show real-world hardiness, though some of them may. For a breeder who is interested in producing plants that show great garden traits that will satisfy the needs of real-world gardeners, we would probably be best served to grow our seedlings in conditions that expose the weak and highlight the hardy and vigorous.
One thing that breeders should always keep in mind is that selection follows exposure. A negative trait may only be exposed when conditions are present to allow the negative trait to be seen. However, some plants are weak or show major flaws in even the most optimum conditions. Can you imagine how poorly these plants do in average conditions? While such a plant may be introduced for breeding purposes, I would always hope that breeders are very clear about its negative traits so people who just want a nice garden display will avoid it. You may say, “Well, surely the price will keep such people from buying it”, but I fear that is not always the case, as too many people equate expensive with high quality.
So long as we pamper our plants and don’t expose them to some bit of adversity, it can be very hard to know what has good garden potential and what is only good in optimum conditions or for breeders. While many breeders may want to give their cherished specimens the best possible care (and who can fault them? I certainly don’t!), there are many clever ways to test any seedling without neglecting the entire garden. One is to simply remove one fan from your select seedlings and to grow that fan in less than idea conditions to see how it performs. Another is to send divisions to friends who love to garden but do not have great garden conditions or refuse to pamper, and see how the plant performs in their conditions. This may slow down the rate of introduction of new seedlings, but that might prove to be a very good thing. I know more than one breeder who has told me that this or that got introduced too quickly and proved to be a poor plant on down the line after introduction. In a few instances, I know of cultivars that only got introduced after several (or even many) years because of how the plant performed over time.
“Good” daylilies will vary based upon the definition of “good” that each person uses. It seems that for many, many people “good” only concerns the flower. For me, “good” is first and foremost about the plant, its ability to thrive and multiple, and its ability to do so without being pampered. While this may seem simplistic to most daylily fanatics, this is also the greatest concern of most average home gardeners. If the daylily is to remain a popular garden plant and the world at large is to learn of the wonders of modern daylilies, we need to produce daylilies that will perform well when average gardeners grow them and we must to begin to respond to serious disease issues such as rust through testing, breeding and selection. Otherwise, home gardeners are likely to stick to a few varieties they know to be reliable (Stella, Happy Returns, Little Business, etc) and all of our marvelous advancements will go unnoticed, perhaps in time even lost, with huge potential markets untapped.