Colorism & Daylilies: A Confession

For seventeen years, I lived in the Washington DC area; in fact, inside the Beltway by a few miles.

Some misinformed persons think this area is glamorous. I didn’t much care for it. Congress and all that didn’t impress me: they were necessary, but burdensome, pretentious, and viewed up close, mostly boring.  Likewise for the weather: winters were cold. And summers were particularly tough: long, hot, heavy, humid.

In the early years, my access to air conditioning was spotty; many nights were sweaty and oppressive, with box fans rattling ineffectually by open windows.

Worse, in 1985 I delivered mail from my car on a long rural route, from winter to fall. I don’t recall much of those bookend seasons. But in between, there were six-day work weeks, pushing through the midday highs, as waves of engine heat radiated punishingly across the front seat of my weathered Chevy wagon. Open windows were part of the deal, neutralizing an already tepid a/c.

"Ditch lilies." Unlovely to me.
Ditch lilies. So hardy, so ugly.

That seemingly endless summer deepened the dread of those months, and cemented my hatred of the most visible  harbinger of their arrival: stands of orange daylilies.

They popped up seemingly all over. Turned out they were wild, commonly called “ditch lilies,” because they took root in all sorts of hard-to-grow-stuff places. Hot weather only seemed to encourage them.

A 1885 sketch of an orange, “ditch” daylily.

It sure seemed like they were everywhere. Tough perennials, they lasted for many weeks. I wondered if their petals were made of leather. Were they the wandering spirits of confirmed masochists?

Whatever; they were certainly orange. Not my favorite color, unless it was in a chilled glass of high-pulp, potassium-rich juice.

To be plain, I hated them. Ditch lilies meant the sweltering season was nigh, stretching ahead in the shimmering air as far as the eye could see.

That confirmed impression lasted a long time. I finally broke through the Beltway perimeter in 1994, and escaped past the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania. Then, at the end of 2001, bypassed DC and came to North Carolina.

In both places, and along innumerable roads between, beginning  mid-spring of each year the orange daylilies gawked and mocked at me from their roadside strongholds. I grimly respected their endurance, but it was clear my death stares failed to faze them.

And finally there was some relief, even during the tough southern summers: my mail delivery days were behind me. I had scrabbled over the threshold into the large category of southerners who wisely regard central air to be fully as vital to survival as water, barbecue or even Duke’s Mayonnaise.

Maybe it was only after I became re-acclimatized, several years into this southern sojourn, that I was ready to take in a startling revelation: turning a corner in some verdant neighborhood, I beheld a familiar green stalk, but one topped by a bloom of an unfamiliar hue.

Hey, it’s a daylily, and it’s white!

I slowed, the better to stare: it was true. A daylily, for sure. But it was white!

Maybe it was plastic; there was a lot of that  kind of flora  around. Or an exotic greenhouse rarity? A refugee smuggled from the nearby Duke Gardens?

Earlham non-orange daylily, number 1.

I saw another one somewhere, but mostly the crop was still the unwelcome orange ditch lilies. That continued until I visited Earlham College in July 2016.

Crossing the campus, I expected the wide green lawns, and carefully coiffed flower beds; students may be indifferent to them, but parents who pay the bills like the  look. Then  somewhere between the Lilly Library and and the arts center I turned a corner and confronted a small field of daylilies, and not an orange one in sight.

My red one.

These new varieties were abundant, and the effect on me was almost electric. After Earlham, I turned to that source of all knowledge, Google, and found quite a palette of them, relatively new in the floral marketplace.

My yellow one, with purple oxalis.

It still took me awhile to warm to these new hues. But the striking colors were irresistible, once I also learned that they were typically perennials. “Perennial” is one of my favorite flower words. Now our little free range yard is host two two different, non-orange daylilies. With luck, there will be more.

But I have to confess: I still don’t like the original orange ones. The association with punishing hot summers is still too deeply inscribed. I admit, it’s prejudice, pure and simple. Colorism. An ugly word. A real phenomenon.

I should get over it, shouldn’t I? It’s utterly unfair, irrational, magical thinking: orange daylilies don’t make it hot.

Is there a floral anti-racism class I can take? Am I hiding in my daylily fragility?




7 thoughts on “Colorism & Daylilies: A Confession”

  1. I miss those “tiger lilies.” They grew along the PA turnpike, a convenient, new road to the city when I was young. I associate them with everybody singing in the car, with the windows down and the bugs flying through, with the “little blue houses” that were the toll booths, with the brand new Howard Johnson restaurants, with stopping to gather wild elderberries for Grandma to make jelly. In those days, I thought elderberry was the only kind of jelly and orange was the only kind of lily.

  2. I love my orange day lilies. Here in Australia they bloom in December, a lovely bright orange carpet of flowers. The December before last I had none as my brother in law mowed them down, thinking they were weeds!
    I didn’t know there were different colors either, so will keep a lookout for them!
    I loved this story! Thanx!

    1. Glad you liked the post, Frances. And yes, there are many colors now, lots more than I have photos of. (Google images has lots, tho.)

  3. Chuck — as long as you were in Fayetteville, surely you came across the works of Roger Mercer and his hybridizing of daylilies . . .an incredible . . .range of colors . . he has a couple of sales and workshops each year — and the sales are random samples that you have no idea what color will be coming up . ..

  4. Thanks for your screed on the humble if ubiquitous day lily. I, too, assumed they were all orange (one of my least favorite flower colors, despite – because? – so many flowers ARE orange). The proliferation in my later adult years of noticing the other-colored lilies has been a (pleasant) revelation and a joy. I’ve even begun enjoying seeing the orange ones. In any case, it was a pleasure to read your well-written memories of lilies past.

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