Beloved by service station landscapers, they took almost no care and the kid who washed the windshields could occasionally squirt the hose on them.
Day lilies still require minimal care, but they are now new and improved. According to Guy Pierce, owner of Mauna Kea Daylily Gardens in Kurtistown on the Big Island, the modern hybrids are now available in wonderful colors and compact shapes. "Day lilies are now America's favorite perennial, and they are one of the easiest plants to grow," he said.
The botanical name of the plant is Hemerocallis, which means "beauty for a day," because the funnel shaped flowers open in the morning, close in the evening and never reopen again. While the blossoms are good for only a day, they keep coming.
"A 3-year-old day lily clump will bloom and rebloom with as many as 2,000 individual flowers each season," Pierce said. The blooming season generally runs from April to October.
While the "day" part of their name is accurate, day lilies are not true lilies and do not grow from bulbs. They are evergreen plants with fleshy roots that thrive in any well-drained soil and full sun.
"The common orange day lily is probably one of the original species, brought to Hawaii about 100 years ago," Pierce said. "As it multiplied it was shared with neighbors and eventually commercialized."
Day lilies come from Asia, and have been a major garden plant in China for thousands of years. The first record, around 2700 B.C., reports that the day lily was used medicinally in the court of the Emperor Huang Ti. The plants were thought to benefit the mind and strengthen willpower, which sounds like a pretty good deal.
Pierce can't guarantee these results, but he does stand by his statement that they are easy to grow and "are virtually maintenance-free." Maybe it's from all those years of gasoline fumes, but day lilies are almost impervious to bugs and disease.
The new hybrids offer a wide choice of colors, from off-white through yellow, melon, pink and red to mauve and orchid. Clusters of up to 30 flowers grow on stalks as short as 12 inches or up to 7 feet, depending upon the variety you choose. The long flower buds in each cluster open successively, day after day.
Because their fleshy roots compete well with tree roots and the plants will grow in light shade, they will grow under trees but will have fewer flowers.
Day lilies should be started from well-formed vigorous plants. The first season should produce one to three bloom stems with 10 to 20 flowers on each stem. The clump will increase in size each year, and after three or four years it should be divided.
Pierce says that day lilies will grow at any elevation in the state, at temperatures as high as 100 degrees F. They would be planted in full sun. Dwarf hybrids should be spaced 1 to 1-1/2 feet apart, and the taller hybrids 2 to 3 feet apart.
When planting day lilies, spread the roots out flat or over a small mound in the bottom of a shallow hole, about 6 inches deep and a foot wide. Add two tablespoons of phosphorous and 3 tablespoons of dolomite (lime) to each hole, place the plant in the hole and cover with soil to about 1 inch above the roots.
Pierce recommends fertilizing every four to six months with Miracle-Gro used at half the strength recommended on the container. "A ratio of 1-20-20 is best, with very low nitrogen," he said.
"Never use a 16-16-16 or any nitrogen fertilizer mix. My advice is to plant your day lilies right the first time and then basically starve them for nitrogen.
"Then in March, just prior to bloom season, you can throw on some bloom food-pure phosphorus and 1/2 teaspoon per plant of K-mag (a mix of potassium and magnesium). Following this system, you should have blooms and reblooms three to six times a season."
Day lilies can be used as border plants, placed at the front, the middle or the back of the border depending upon their height. Pierce suggests allowing them to spread in an informal manner.
Pierce welcomes visitors to his day lily garden, about three miles off the main Volcano Road. He sells day lilies from the nursery where he has thousands of varieties. He also ships them to Oahu by priority mail, including a gift plant with each order. For information, call 1-(808)-966-6693.
Pierce warns against ordering day lilies from mainland mail-order companies, as they usually offer the dormant varieties which require a winter chill. "They will bloom poorly or never at all in Hawaii," he said.
You forget until you go to the mainland that our landscaped service stations are not a general national trend. The tiny, well cared for plots of blooming flowers cultivated at so many local stations are a small part of what makes Hawaii unique.