Digging Up Ditch Lilies, Without Guilt

The older I get, the happier I am to bid summer good-bye. Maybe it’s because July and August really are hotter now than they used to be. Maybe it’s because I no longer have a backyard swimming pool and can’t find a good way to cool off. Or maybe it’s because I’m sick of watering and weeding worrying about ticks.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad September’s here. It’s one of my favorite months for a lot of reasons. School’s back in so travel destinations aren’t so crowded. The holiday craziness hasn’t begun yet. It’s still okay to wear shorts. And flip-flops. And white britches. Most of all, I like September because it’s so very purple-and-gold. I’m not just talking about football teams—take Tennessee Tech as an obvious example—that wear those colors.

I’m talking about the flowers that blanket rural roadsides this time of year. Ditch flowers, I call them. Ironweed. Chickory. Clover. Joe-Pye-Weed. Morning glory. And, yes, even kudzu. That’s just the short list of purple wildflowers blooming right now. And, oh, the plethora of yellow flowers! A few Black-Eyed Susan stragglers. Camphorweed. Partridge pea. Countless varieties of sunflowers. And my favorite of all—the much-maligned goldenrod.

What’s not still blooming, however, is one of my favorite ditch flowers—the Original Orange Daylily, sometimes called “wild” daylilies because they grow prolifically almost everywhere. Native to China, Japan and Korea, these lilies are so hardy that their tubers can survive above ground for long stretches of time. They’re tolerant of most types of soil, not particular about how often they’re watered and adaptable to all but the harshest climates. That’s why they’re common all over the world.

Except, as it turns out, my own front yard. Until a couple of years ago, nothing but weeds grew around the electric pole down by the street. I rectified that by planting Siberian irises and “magic lilies” given to me by friends. But I needed something else to make the flower bed complete. Something that would bloom profusely just as summer was heating up. Something that was rabbit resistant and attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds. Something that would choke out weeds and grass.

What my flower bed desperately needed were the perennials I’ve always called ditch lilies.

But here’s the dilemma. Is it okay to dig up vegetation that grow along roadsides? I have no qualms about picking wildflowers. Some of the most beautiful bouquets that have ever adorned my kitchen table were made up of ox-eye daisies and trumpet vine and purple thistle. But when you pick a flower, you leave the root. Not so if you dig it. It didn’t seem right to help myself to the orange daylilies that grew near a road where I often walk, even though they were thick and abundant. Best to leave them for others to enjoy.

Yeah, but.

A couple of days after talking myself out of digging up a few clumps of blooming lilies last June, I discovered that the county road crew had mowed them all down. Not a single orange blossom remained for anyone, including me, to enjoy. So I sprang into action. I tossed a shovel and a cardboard box into my car and returned to the scene of the crime. I dug up daylily tubers until the box was filled. Then I took them home and planted them around my light pole.

They didn’t bloom this summer, of course. But I’m certain they’re already busy multiplying underground. Next June, they’ll be four feet tall and reaching happily for the sun. As will the droves of ditch lilies that remain where I dug. But mine have an advantage. They’re too far from the street for the county mowers to reach them.

(September 1, 2019)