May is undoubtedly the prettiest month of the year in my garden; and the thing that makes my garden outstanding this time of year is the daylilies. I grow several named and un-named cultivars but my favorite is an old-fashioned variety of daylily called Hyperion. My wife’s grandmother got these daylilies sometime in the 1950s. For the next several years they thrived and reproduced so successfully in her Garden Oaks yard that she divided them and took them to her ranch in Lovelady, Texas. My wife’s grandmother passed away 20 years ago. However, the daylilies she planted almost 70 years ago are still thriving at her east Texas ranch and now, in our Brenham yard.
While daylilies make my yard pretty, my yard pales in comparison to the hundreds of feet of daylilies that line Highway 290 just west of Brenham on Magnolia Hill Farms (5059 HWY 290W, 979-251-4069). My buddy Nathan Hanath is an organic farmer and a commercial daylily grower. He currently has over 800 named cultivars for sale and hundreds more cultivars that he has bred. Right now they are all beginning to bloom and a visit to the farm will literally blow your horticultural mind. While Nathan loves growing organic produce, his zeal for breeding daylilies is contagious.
Magnolia Hill Farm in Brenham has 0ver 800 cultivars of daylilies.
According to Nathan, you do not need to be a professional to breed and grow beautiful daylily hybrids. With just two or more cultivars, a few horticultural skills and some basic documentation skills, home gardeners like you and I can create daylilies that are just as amazing as the ones grown by the pros.
Botanically speaking, daylilies are perfect flowers. That means they have both male and female organs inside each flower. The male parts are called stamens. There are six of these in the center of the flower and they are topped with the pollen you will use to make your cross. The female parts of the flower are collectively called the pistil. Pollen is applied to a part of the pistil called the stigma. In the daylily this is a single, long curved structure that is generally noticeably longer than the six stamens. To make your cross, gently remove a stamen from the first plant you want to breed. Then use it like a small paint brush to gently paint the pistil of the mother plant.
In this lovely daylily you can clearly see the stamens covered in pollen and the stigma that receives the pollen
When the flowers open in the morning their pollen is slightly sticky. In fact, according to Nathan, some daylilies have not even made their pollen by the time their flowers open. Because of this, the best time to pollinate daylilies is around 10:00 am. His experience has shown him that you will be much less successful with your crosses if you breed too early in the morning or too late in the afternoon.
Documenting Your Crosses:
While paperwork is not necessary to cross breed flowers, it will provide you with the information you need to understand what crosses work and which ones don’t. Some daylilies have 11 set of chromosomes (diploid) and some have 22 (tetraploid). “Dips” and “Tets” (as they are called in the trade) will not cross. Since it is almost impossible to determine if your flowers are dips or tets, good documentation will allow you to understand which plants you can cross and which ones you can’t.
It is a good idea to make a permanent tag that notes the pollen plant and mother plant when crossing daylilies
Good documentation will also allow you to begin to understand which plants do a good job of passing on their genetics. As you get better at breeding, your documentation will allow you to begin to understand which of your plants will more likely create good results when crossed with others.
Once you place the pollen on the stigma, immediately make a record of the cross. When Nathan crosses daylilies he attaches a little plastic tag to flower he just crossed. His tag lists the name of the pollen cultivar first and the mother plant second. These tags will not only help you remember what plants you have crossed but they will also be a visual reminder of which pods have the hybridized seeds at harvest time.
Here Nathan applies pollen to the mother plant
Growing your Crosses:
If you made a successful cross, your plant should produce seed pods in about 3 days (as soon as the spent blooms fall of the plant). The seeds in those pods will be ready to harvest when the pods dry out, turn brown and begin to open. For most cultivars this happens from mid to late June. Most pods have 6 to 8 seeds in them but some will have more or less depending on the cultivar. When the seed pods open the seeds are ready to plant. However, if you will be saving them for a while, you need to lay them out in a warm dry place and let them cure further for a few days. Once this final drying is done Nathan takes the seeds and places them in small, clear ziplock bags. Nathan cuts the tag that was on the flower down and slips it inside the baggie with the seeds so he knows what he has. Once your seeds are packed, place them in the crisper draw of the refrigerator. This will provide the the seeds the chilling hours they need to germinate.
The tags Nathan applies at pollenation will follow the seeds into the bag that holds the seeds and finally into the seed starting trays
Nathan plants his seeds around Labor Day. He fills 50 cell planting trays with a high quality potting mix and wets it thoroughly with a water/hydrogen peroxide mixture that is mixed at a rate of two tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide per gallon of water. He places 1 seed in each cup and lightly covers them in soil. He then uses this solution to water his plants until he moves the seedlings to his beds in early October.
Seed pods begin to form as soon as the spent flower falls off
While many people put their seeds under grow lights, Nathan sprouts his seeds in an enclosed back porch. Once the little seedlings sprout he moves them outside under shade. While most of his seeds germinate in a week or two, he has seen some cultivars take over a month to sprout. Once the sprouts reach 2 to 3 inches tall, Nathan plants them in partial shade beds that are well worked with compost.
With a few skills and a little practice, the average gardener can breed exceptionally beautiful daylilies in their home garden.
If you are going to be passing through Brenham you really need stop at Magnolia Hill Farms and visit with Nathan. His knowledge and enthusiasm for daylilies is infectious. I have grown daylilies for years. However, until I saw 800 cultivars side by side in a single place, I never understood why over 6000 people were members of the American Hemerocallis Society (AHS) . After visiting with Nathan I finally get it. Most gardeners enjoy creating things. While it is fun to design and install a new bed or border, nothing could be more fulfilling than filling your design with beautiful flowers that you also created.