In Praise of the Ditch Lily

They’re vibrant, hardy and part of Wisconsin gardening history. It’s time to show tiger lilies some love.

I have a penchant for advocating lost causes: Miles Davis’s electric period, Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, horseradish Havarti cheese. But none more disdained than ditch lilies.

These are the orange daylilies—formally called Hemerocallis fulva but also known as tiger, roadside or tawny lilies—that you see happily blooming in mid-July in just about every yard in Madison’s older neighborhoods. The experts snicker.

Oh, you might as well wear white shoes after Labor Day or extol the virtues of two-buck chuck wine as grow ditch lilies. They are the Rodney Dangerfield of landscaping: They get no respect. You can’t buy them at garden centers. Glorious Olbrich Gardens doesn’t even display them. Worse, they’re branded with the plague label.

Invasive species!

Wow, that one really gets me.

I think ditch lilies (I grew up calling them tiger lilies) are beautiful. I love the drifts of waving orange against the stark green of early summer. My own stands of ditch lilies came from my neighbors Pete from across the street and Paul from behind the house. They do tend to spread, so sometimes you need to shovel-prune the clump and share the bounty.

“They fall into the category of ‘friendship plants,’” notes Johanna Oosterwyck, research program manager of the D.C. Smith Greenhouse on the UW–Madison campus. “We give them away to our friends.”

You bet. To me that makes them the true indigenous flower—the flower of the common folk. Oosterwyck tells me that they actually originated in Asia and probably followed the Spice Road to Europe, where they hitched a ride to America in the 1700s. “They have quite the history,” she says. “The flowers are edible and some people say they can be used for medicinal purposes.”

But, oh, this is not the upbeat story you get from the gardening pros. They favor the literally thousands of hybridized daylilies developed since the 1930s by breeders like Wisconsin’s Klehm family (Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery in Rock County) and Darrell Apps, who was trained at UW–Madison. From the basic orange and yellow, daylilies today run the gamut from near whites to pastels to pinks to purple. They can be anywhere from six inches to five and a half feet high, and their bloom time can range from spring to early fall. No wonder daylilies are a gardener’s anchor.

“Personally, I think most of the daylilies are equally as tough [as H. Fulva], but don’t spread so aggressively and are better for our native habitats,” says Jeff Epping, Olbrich’s director of horticulture.

Of the ditch lily, he adds, “I can’t argue with you regarding its toughness and tenacity. It’s [hard] to find bulletproof plants like that. Unfortunately it’s a little too tough.”

Okay, I get it, but for the kind of gardener I am … Well, let me explain. I am both industrious and lazy. I have a green thumb but hate to weed. Worse, I plants things impulsively, even randomly (according to my disapproving spouse). Worse yet, I like it when “volunteer” tomato and pumpkin plants pop up in the middle of my vegetable beds. For me, ditch lilies fit perfectly in the welcoming chaos of my garden.

They choke off real weeds and fill in bald spots that seemingly migrated from my head to my yard. One patch of lilies, which I positioned on the northern exposure in the front yard, have every intention of reaching the Valhalla of a southern exposure. They’ve sent off exploratory shoots into the narrow one-inch crack separating my house’s foundation from the concrete driveway and walkway. They’re marching southward inch by inch, season by season

It’s just that full-throated embrace of life that allows ditch lilies to propagate in the wild and naturalize. Oosterwyck recounts the story of the first nursery she worked for. “My boss told me that out in the countryside if you saw a clump of ditch lilies, a peony and a lilac, you could start looking for the old farmhouse foundation.”

That gets to my point: How can these plants be considered an invasive species when their existence is so intertwined with Wisconsin gardening history? They are the flower of everyday life and should be celebrated!
When I made this pitch to Dick Zondag, president of Jung’s garden centers, he paused to politely ponder my argument and said he might consider selling ditch lilies. I can’t say for sure if he really agreed with me or simply thought it prudent to humor an obvious crank.

Now let me tell you about Forgotten Valley’s horseradish Havarti …

Marc Eisen is a freelance writer and editor in Madison.

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