Lily maker

Written by Kathy Weiss

Photos by Reggie Morrow

Like a doting father, Bill rises early in the morning to tend his brood on the six acres he owns near the Iowa River. If the air is clear, he spends the next few hours as the blooms start to awaken carefully extracting pollen from one plant and placing it on another in an arduous process that involves documentation, labeling and transplanting. Finally, after long observation, he selects cultivars like a judge picks winners in a beauty contest.

Impressed years ago by a retired English professor’s devotion to cultivating hemerocallis, Bill picked up his spade and has hardly set it down since. From a casual hobbyist, he has become “an intermediate level private hybridizer” with thousands of daylilies thriving in beds behind his home.

“Many people who grow daylilies would remember Fred’s garden,” Bill says, referring to the man who inspired him, Fred McDowell, whose Court Street address was a popular destination. “I remember 20 or 25 years ago going to Fred’s gardens and just being amazed.”

A retired hand surgeon and artist, Bill started planting lilies in his own garden, using them in borders with other perennials. Over time, they became his favorite flower, or as he puts it: “My garden passion.” Perfecting them became his quest.

“I start hybridizing around the last week in June through July,” Bill says as he strolls the pathways between beds and beds of lilies. “I might spend two hours in the garden each morning. Weather is very important,” he explains. “If it’s raining, you can’t hybridize.”

From more than 200 plants registered by the American Hemerocallis Society, Bill chooses about 20 for his breeding stock. “Some of these 20 are very special plants,” he says, because they are available in such limited numbers. He breeds only tetraploids in the large spiders and unusual forms, or “UFO” classification.

Rows of seedlings can be found growing among the more mature plants — about 1,000 in all — each carefully labeled to identify its parents. For example, Wild & Free (the mom) is crossed with Star of India (the dad). Will they be a match that survives Bill’s scrupulous competition? After two years, the seedlings bloom. He chooses the best and discards the rest.

“Out of approximately 1,000 seedlings, I select about 50 cultivars in which I have some interest,” Bill says of his selection process. “I then grow these for at least three years, assessing them for bloom, plant vigor, scape height, branching patterns and bud count, among other things. From these I select one to three plants to propagate and possibly register.”

That’s only three finalists out of 1,000 contestants. Even Miss Universe would wilt under such pressure.

“If the plant is vigorous and the bloom meets my esthetic standards, then I would keep and register the plant,” he says, noting that the progression from cross-breeding to registering can take five years.

Right now, Bill is watching about 150 cultivars, each identified by a number that corresponds to a key he devised that tracks the parent plants.

Earlier this summer, he predicted that 106705 might be a keeper, “based on its branching pattern and bud count per scape.” The competition continues.

With names like Primal Scream, Performance Anxiety and Prairie Diva, growing daylilies has its curiosities, but daylily fanciers learn to speak the language. Akin to adopting a child, hybridizers keep detailed records of each plant’s acquisition history so they can track its lineage.

Bill stands before his baby, Tribal Dancer, and offers this description: “A large spider with red and reddish purple blooms and good color saturation.” Another favorite is Other Obsession, “one of the nicest lilies I’ve seen in the Spider-UFO classification with intense chartreuse throat and light mauve petal.”

“When it blooms, your eyes drop on it,” he says.

He’s currently matching Monster, a “pollen parent,” with several partners that are “pod parents” including Mandalay Bay, Million Dollar Baby and Christmas Ribbons to see what happens.

“You have to get to know your plants because some won’t set pods,” he says of those destined to be outcasts.

Size is another big factor in Bill’s judging.

“If blooms aren’t eight inches across,” he says, “I’m not much into it.”