After moving to my forever home 20 years ago, my love of heirloom garden plants intensified when I purchased a piece of land adjacent to my property and discovered an old species daylily struggling to grow there. The property had once been the home of the “Red, White and Blue” tavern. Built in the early days of the 19th century, the tavern had served hungry and weary travelers moving along the road between Buffalo and Cleveland. All that remains of it today is the rock foundation. Dry stacked stones still serve as a retaining wall in the old “back yard.” And, whenever I stick a shovel into its 200 year old trash pile, I usually find a pottery shard, a piece of twisted tin or, if I’m lucky, an antique glass bottle or two.
The daylily was growing in the shadows of the tavern’s overgrown garden, beneath tall oaks and maples and wrapped in woodland underbrush that had taken over this acre of land. I spotted it sticking up through the weeds beside a large boxwood. The strap-like foliage was clean and neat and had formed a perfect little clump, as if intentionally trying to draw attention to itself by screaming out “Hey! Look at me! I’m special!” I wondered how many years it had struggled to survive there, alone and forgotten, and now too shaded to even offer a single bloom.
Assuming it was one of the orange “ditch lilies” that are prolific growers along roadsides, I dug the small clump and moved it to my own flower bed next door where it could soak up the summer sun, and then I promptly forgot about it.
The following spring, I was surprised and delighted when it burst into bloom, probably for the first time in decades. It was not the tawny orange roadside lily I’d expected. Instead, the blooms were a bright sunny yellow with sepal reverses streaked with soft copper. Its fragrance was heavy and sweet. It was a flower I had never seen before.
I was curious to know what I had. No one I knew had ever seen this flower either. For a year or two I tried to find any information about it that I could. I eventually gave up and simply enjoyed it. Planted in my sunny border, the flower grew rapidly until I was able to divide it. I now have many of these rare beauties growing throughout my gardens.
This spring, a trip to the botanical garden reminded me of my unidentified little lily and I took up my research once again. I began by letting logic pinpoint the age of my plant. The tavern had been built between 1807 and 1809. I’d been told by the previous property owner that it had been abandoned by the turn of the century before being burned down around 1930. Since no one would have planted a flower in an abandoned garden, I deduced that it had to have been planted in the 1800’s.
Only 9 species daylilies were grown in the U.S. before the 20th century. Much more delicate than modern ruffled hybrids, these species blooms are trumpet shaped, like old-fashioned lilies. The most common yellow variety is Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus or what is more commonly known as the “Lemon Lily.” My lily was similar to this flower, but not quite the same. Next I found another lily variety that was said to carry the same copper sepal streaks as the lily I was growing. In photos they looked identical, but the described bloom time was wrong and that lily hadn’t been developed until after 1910.
It took some digging, but I was finally able to identify my flower as likely to be “Hemerocallis dumortierii” or “Dumortier’s daylily,” a species native to mountain meadows of Japan. It was discovered in 1834 and later described by C. F. A. Morren, a Belgian botanist. It was one of the species brought to the U.S. and purchased by early gardeners.
So far, I’ve been able to find little information about my lily or the botanist Morren. I don’t suppose it matters. My pretty little flower continues to bloom all the same, whether anyone knows its name or not. It’s always one of the first flowers to burst onto the garden scene each May, happy I think, to finally, once again, stand in the sun.