Beauty for a Day: Enjoying Daylilies Indoors

In a love letter to daylilies, gardener Mary Walton Upchurch writes of her unusual approach to the prolific but fleeting blooms, which she grows as cut flowers for the house rather than as ornaments for the garden
A vibrant yellow 'Mico' daylily bloom in a small glass dish beside a cup and saucer, sitting on a botanical tablecloth featuring lemons and white flowers
Admiring daylily blooms in the comfort of home is the author’s cup of tea. Pictured: ‘Mico’ daylily

Throughout the year, I sometimes stop and count how many months until the daylilies bloom. They are the horticultural highlight of my garden. From the end of May until the beginning of August, I am in daylily heaven. In May I watch the progress of the first daylily bud in the garden as it appears and begins to swell. And when it finally opens, I feel the same thrill I feel when I first see the ocean when I arrive at the beach.

I have an unusual approach to daylilies: I grow them as cut flowers for the house rather than as ornaments for the garden. Outdoors their strappy foliage holds no charm for me, and since they must be grown in full sun, the daylily garden in June and July is hot—too hot to linger over each fabulous blossom. But if you bring the flowers indoors, you can enjoy the daylilies up close and often.

Pale peach daylily with ruffled edges
‘Ruffled Apricot’ daylily

I once tried to persuade a lady of this when I visited her daylily garden. I did not know her; I was visiting with a mutual friend. Our hostess, a real daylily enthusiast, eagerly showed us around her garden. Every daylily in her collection was robust with blooms in exciting colors and forms. Yet despite her interest, our hostess clearly was not in good health. Perspiration stood out on her brow, and she walked with difficulty. I asked if she had ever tried bringing a few daylilies inside and arranging them in a shallow dish so she could enjoy them all day. As one daylily lover to another, I wanted to show her an easy and comfortable way to enjoy her flowers. But I failed. I could see it in her eyes: she was not going to try it.

I could not persuade her, but perhaps I can persuade you. Start by bringing a few blooms inside. And when you see how often you feast your eyes on them indoors, you’ll be hooked.

At the beginning of the season, the daylilies come slowly, and I treasure every flower, pinching off each blossom as it opens on the stalk and hurrying indoors with it. I arrange these individual blossoms in shallow dishes.

Three 'Jazz King' daylily blooms, which are bright yellow with red-orange centers and ruffled edges, arranged in a shallow clear dish, set on top of sheet musing.
‘Jazz Kings’ daylily blooms

“I didn’t know they only last for one day!” I remember the anguished voice of the young bride who had decorated for an evening party with daylilies. When the guests entered the dining room, there was the forlorn spectacle of shriveled daylilies straggling down the dining room table. That was 40 years ago, and although I have discovered since then some daylilies that stay open in the evening, the fact remains that daylilies bloom for one day. In fact, their botanical name, Hemerocallis, means beauty for a day. I think this trait limits the gardener’s imagination when it comes to using daylilies in arrangements, but it shouldn’t—because what a day of beauty it is!

Perhaps you are thinking of the old-fashioned daylily, the one the Romans grew, the orange lilies that bloom by the roadside in summer. Oh reader, think again. There is a brave new world of daylilies in mouthwatering colors and tantalizing shapes and sizes. To look through a daylily catalog is to confront temptation on every page. There are spiders with slender, elegant petals; double daylilies ravishing as full roses; singles with piecrust edges, my particular weakness. Some daylilies are diamond dusted, some fragrant. Some blossoms are miniature, some 10 inches wide. Their allure is endless.

a bed of bright orange daylilies growing beside a cobblestone patio
‘Primal Scream’ daylilies in the author’s garden

Daylily catalogs are even more seductive now because in addition to arriving in the mail, they come online. It is so easy to click “Add to Basket.”  Last year when I shopped the Oakes Daylilies catalog online, my finger—of its own volition—kept clicking “Add to Basket.” Even though my husband was protesting in the background, “We don’t have room for any more daylilies!” my hand just couldn’t stop clicking that button.

Losing my head is part of the fun; but I do have a strategy in choosing daylilies so that they combine well in arrangements. I follow an analogous color scheme, colors that are adjacent on the color wheel. I choose warm colors: warm yellow, orange yellow, yellow orange, orange, red orange, orange red, red, and burgundy. As long as a daylily is somewhere on this continuum, chances are it will blend well with others in the same range. It is a joy to experiment with different color combinations, and certainly arranging daylilies in a vase is easier and more rewarding than arranging them in the garden border.

deep purple daylilies, almost black
‘Night Embers’ daylilies

Usually I choose colors that are close together on the color wheel. For instance ‘Citrus Sparkles,’ ‘Savannah Debutante,’ and ‘Jersey Spider’ are light cadmium yellow, cadmium yellow apricot, and cadmium yellow orange. Sometimes the arrangement skips around on the continuum: ‘Better than Butter’ (5-inch piecrust yellow), ‘Let it Rip’ (10-inch spider in gold and persimmon orange), ‘Selma Longlegs’ (9-inch spider light tangerine brushed with cinnamon.) For contrast, add ‘Night Embers’ (5-inch dark-red double with a golden wire edge). With descriptions like these from the catalogs, how can you resist?

Recently I have succumbed to the nearly white daylilies ‘Marque Moon,’ ‘Sunday Gloves,’ ‘Heavenly Angel Ice’—as majestic as any orchid—and ‘Boundless Beauty.’ For that daylily, I paid $50, an astronomical price. But I have been richly rewarded with large, elegant buds that take several days to open, first showing the white piecrust petal edge breaking out of the bud, then an arabesque of loveliness as the petals unfurl to 7½ inches, and finally fading late in evening to a delicate crepe texture. As always, the golden pollen-dusted anthers punctuate the petals.

boundless beauty daylily blooms arranged in a shallow dish
‘Boundless Beauty’ daylily blooms

At the beginning of the season, the daylilies come slowly, and I treasure every flower, pinching off each blossom as it opens on the stalk and hurrying indoors with it. I arrange these individual blossoms in shallow dishes. I don’t cut the whole stalk with buds because indoors some of the buds won’t open and I will lose those future flowers.

However as the season progresses and the daylilies bloom profusely, I sometimes cut the whole stalk and bring it indoors, sacrificing some buds because there are so many flowers in the garden coming at once. When I bring in a stalk with an open flower and numerous buds, I pinch off most of the buds, leaving one or two large buds to open on subsequent days. These long buds brushed with color are opulent accents in an arrangement.

orange and red 'Serge Renaud' daylily blooms, photographed with telephoto lens
The hypnotic colors of a ‘Serge Renaud’ are best appreciated up close … and indoors.
Close up of the orange and red petal of the 'Serge Renaud' daylily, photographed with telephoto lens
The author captures the details with a telephoto lens.

And as the season wanes and the last daylily blooms on each stalk, I again cut the stalks and put them in a tall vase with their slender foliage. An arrangement of all daylilies can be fabulous. Adding a few on their stalks to an arrangement with other flowers can be fabulous too. And when I see the very last daylily fade, I feel as sad as I do when I take my last look at the ocean when I leave the beach.

The experimentation is endless, the temptation is endless, and so is the pleasure. Give it a try this daylily season.

Text and photography by Mary Walton Upchurch © 2019

Author and gardening enthusiast Mary Walton Upchurch grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and earned a degree in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. For more than 30 years, she practiced in Montgomery as an award-winning landscape architect and wrote garden articles for a local publication. Today, she lives in western North Carolina, where she built a home and garden on top of a mountain with panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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