How’s your flower knowledge? Do you know the difference between a lily and a daylily, and can you recognize which is which in a flower garden?

It might sound like splitting lily hairs, but it’s actually quite important.

If you want eye-popping color in the midsummer perennial garden, plant lilies and daylilies. If you want nearly all the colors of the rainbow in assorted flower shapes, sizes and plant heights, plant lilies and daylilies. If you want reliability, plant lilies and daylilies.

Now, to the original question: What’s the difference? Blossoms on both tend to be trumpet-shaped, which is why at casual glance they sometimes all get called "lilies." That’s where the similarity ends, as their botanical structure is miles apart, as is their care.

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Lilies grow from actual underground bulbs, while daylilies grow from thickened, fibrous, fanned-out roots. You can easily tell lilies and daylilies apart just by looking, because daylily plants have long straplike leaves that arch outward from a central crown at ground level, while lily leaves are spaced individually along a central tall stalk, and the blossoms form at the top of these stalks. Picture an Easter lily.

Daylilies belong to the genus Hemerocallis, and lilies to the genus Lilium, which makes the latter the "true" lilies of this perennial pair. True lilies grow from bulbs, while daylilies don’t.

New cultivars of daylilies have large flowers, interesting shapes and rich colors, such as the Spider Man variety. David Samson / The Forum
New cultivars of daylilies have large flowers, interesting shapes and rich colors, such as the Spider Man variety. David Samson / The Forum

To create the most satisfying perennial garden, combine many different types so there’s something blooming and ever-changing from spring through fall. Daylilies and lilies fill the bill for high summer, with their peak flowering about mid-July through mid-August. No garden is complete without several varieties of each.

Here are some tips for best success with lilies and daylilies.

  • Lilies prefer full, all-day sunshine, although a little afternoon shade will prolong their flowers. Daylilies offer a little flexibility, flowering in full sun or part sun.
  • Lilies grow best in well-drained soil that doesn’t stay soggy during wet periods, and they thrive in soil rich in organic material like peat moss or compost. Daylilies are very soil-tolerant and will grow well in areas of the flowerbed that stay moist.
  • Both have cultivars in a myriad of colors, flower shapes and plant height, offering great flexibility in design.
  • For the greatest visual impact with both, instead of planting scattered individuals, plant three or five of the same cultivar in a closely spaced grouping for a larger splash of color. If budgets don’t allow purchasing multiples all at once, let the plants grow a season, then divide.
  • Plant lilies in spring or fall from dormant bulbs, or all summer from actively growing potted plants sold at garden centers. Daylilies, likewise, are available seasonally as dormant roots, or as potted plants.
  • The best time to dig, divide and reset established lily bulbs is September, which should be done every three to five years, if the clump becomes crowded and flowering diminishes. Daylilies can remain in place longer without requiring division, but if they become too crowded, divide the clumps in August or September.
  • Among the many types of true lilies, the most common are called Asiatic lilies, with their upward-facing flowers. They’re the most winter-hardy and easiest to grow, but don’t limit yourself. Trumpet lilies are even more spectacular with their huge, fragrant, outward-facing, trumpet-shaped blooms on plants that can reach 5 or 6 feet in height, and they grow remarkably well in our region. Explore these and other types of true lilies.
    Asiatic lilies are among the easiest to grow. David Samson / The Forum
    Asiatic lilies are among the easiest to grow. David Samson / The Forum
  • If your vision of daylilies is the old-fashioned, small-flowered type, think again. Today’s named cultivars have huge flowers measuring up to 7 inches across in rich, vibrant colors with fun shapes ranging from ruffled to spider-form. Each individual blossom might only last a day, but the huge clusters of buds keep the show going.
  • For generous blossoms, fertilize lilies and daylilies in early May and early June with a well-balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer.
  • Both benefit from a mulch of shredded wood products or compost.
  • For end-of-season cleanup, cut back daylily foliage to several inches above ground level after a hard freeze, because the plants become quite limp afterwards. Stems of true lilies are best left intact during winter and cut down in early spring before new growth begins.

ARCHIVE: Read more of Don Kinzler's Growing Together columns

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at kinzlerd@casscountynd.gov or call 701-241-5707.