Daylilies can be addictive.

It starts simply enough. You want a plant that is hardy enough to stand up to Maine winters, will bloom for at least a few weeks each summer, has few pests, comes in many colors and is generally low maintenance. You buy one daylily, like it and then buy another. And another.

It’s an easy plant to hybridize, so you venture into that part of gardening. Your collection of daylilies keeps growing.

Gary Wnek of Cape Elizabeth has 715 different daylily varieties growing on his half-acre property. And that’s not even counting the seedlings he has coming along. He said his hobby began in 2001 when his wife became ill (she’s doing well now).

“I thought I’d stay by the house instead of playing golf all the time,” he recalled, “so I ordered a deal from White Flower Farm that was 50 daylilies for $50.”

After he planted those, he read about hybridizing and attempted that. Eighteen of his hybrids are now registered with the American Hemerocallis Society; you can find them at daylilies.org.

He does not sell any of his daylilies, and no catalogs have offered them for sale; he has given a few away, though.

Lisa and Paul Bourret of West Newfield also started growing daylilies as a hobby. By and large, they still treat it that way. They have 1,600 varieties on their property, which they call Rockhaven Daylilies, and usually open up a few weeks each summer to sell plants. This year, they won’t because they are heavily involved in the New England Daylily Society regional weekend being held nearby in New Hampshire.

“We’ll still be happy to have people come by and look, take pictures or paint, but we aren’t going to be selling,” Lisa Bourret said.

She said her husband, Paul, does the hybridizing and has developed many varieties that he likes, but he has yet to register any of them with the American Hemerocallis Society.

Now that you have been warned that daylilies can be addictive, I’ll tell you how to get started.

They aren’t fussy about soil, although it would be tough to grow them in pure clay. Much of the Bourrets’ property is wet, so they grow a lot of their daylilies in raised beds. To produce the best blossoms, daylilies like to have a reasonable amount of rainfall, but they will survive drought. A light feeding of fertilizer in the spring is sufficient.

The Bourrets prefer to buy locally because locally grown daylilies are likely to be hardy enough for Maine – and there are many specialty daylily growers in Maine.

Wnek often buys from online catalogs, where a newly introduced daylily can cost $125 or more, he said. Be patient, wait a few years, and the price for the same daylily will drop to about $30. Common varieties sell for just a few dollars.

Often, though, you can get free daylilies. The plants spread quickly and have to be dug and divided – which can be done in spring or early summer, although it is usually recommended to divide them after the plants are done blooming for the season.

To dig and divide, dig up the plant with a shovel or spading fork. Put the tool deeply into the soil about 6 inches away from the plant, and push back and down on the handle. After you have gone all around the daylily, the entire plant will pop out of the soil.

Once it is out of the ground, separate the long, fibrous roots with a garden fork or by hand – although the plant will survive if you cut the entire root system in half with a shovel. I know, because I did it many times early in my gardening career before I read about the proper way to do it.

If you decide to ignore my warning about how addictive daylilies can be and you want to create your own hybrids, it is easy if you are organized.

“They do hybridize by themselves – the bees and bugs do it,” Wnek said.

But you’ll want to know who the parents are and keep track of the lineage. So pollinate them yourself.

Each daylily has six stamens, which produce pollen, and one pistil. Daylily blossoms last only one day – even though plants can continue blossoming for several weeks. Once the pollen has become fluffy and dry, usually about mid-morning, you take the pollen from the stamens on one plant and put it on the pistil of another plant.

Wnek takes pictures and does a voice recording whenever he hybridizes, and later makes a computerized record of it.

You let the blossom of the daylily go past prime and drop off on its own. The pod that is left will then continue to grow, and at the end of the season you can harvest the pods, open them and save the seeds.

Wnek stores the seeds in small plastic bags, and plants them in the spring. Sometimes he plants them indoors under fluorescent lights, but they grow better in full outdoor light.

He then picks the plants he likes best to keep growing in future years. First he looks for scapes – the daylily stems that hold the flowers – that grow well above the leaves so they are visible. He wants several scapes on each plant, and many blossoms on each scape.

Lisa Bourret said that while daylilies look good from a distance, you have to get up close to truly appreciate them.

“That’s when you see the ruffles, the sculpted edges, the toothy edges and the different forms,” she said. “They are truly wonderful.”

So get up close and personal with some daylilies this summer – and just maybe give in to the temptation of hybridizing a few.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected].


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