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Darrel Apps, Daylily Breeder

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It was about 1968 when Darrel Apps realized that daylilies were changing in a major way, and he quickly decided that he wanted to be a part of it. With his newly minted Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in hand, he moved to the University of Kentucky for a job as assistant professor of horticulture. In the display garden there he saw some spanking-new daylilies that were truly red, not just deep orange or even brick red. And just as impressive as this new-to-daylilies color was the fact that the torrid Kentucky heat didn't faze them in the least.

Apps had grown up in the cool Wisconsin countryside, knowing the old fashioned roadside daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), and he always included one variety or another in the first gardens he made. But it was in the unforgiving heat of midsummer Kentucky that he first realized their worth as all-American garden plants. No other perennial bloomed so generously in the baking sun, or could match the daylilies’ large, exotic flowers. Here was a group of plants that could be the stars of the midsummer garden. And if breeders could turn these basically orange or yellow flowers bright red, what else was possible?.

And so began his deeper involvement with daylilies. He started in much the same way as hundreds of his cohorts in the daylily boom that began about 20 years ago and continues today. He read all the information about daylilies he could get his hands on. He joined the American Hemerocallis Society (see the box opposite) and traveled to meetings and to other members’ gardens. And in his spare time, early on midsummer mornings, he carefully took pollen from a plant he liked and put it on the pistil of another that looked promising to see what magic they might work together.

From Pastime to Profession

For most daylily aficionados, breeding new varieties remains a hobby, but Apps kept expanding the scope of his projects. Now he does nothing but daylilies at his Woodside Nursery, one of the most important daylily producers in North America today.

About half of the 10 acres that surround his home in southern New Jersey are planted to thousands of young plants from his latest crosses. From these will come future Apps cultivars—on average, one nameworthy plant per 1,000 seedlings. He has introduced 215 daylily varieties and holds patents on half a dozen of them. One of his creations, the ever-blooming ‘Happy Returns’, is the number two best-seller among all daylilies in America. (Its parent, ‘Stella de Oro’, is still first.)

The other five acres at Woodside produce daylily plants for sale directly to gardeners—about 900 named varieties at any given time—either by mail or to people who drive to his nursery. Most of those 900, of course, are not his own creations. As a breeder, Apps is constantly trialing the finest improvements from his colleagues, selections that might cost from 50 to hundreds of dollars per plant. Eventually, the best of these find their way into his production beds and the pages of his catalog.

After he has finished evaluating his crops of seedlings, the unnamed plants he won't keep are dug and shipped nationwide for sale in the catalogs of most major mail-order daylily nurseries as well as many perennial suppliers, often as part of “bargain” or “economy” mixes. “Yes, they are my culls,” Apps says, “but still 90 percent of them are as good as or better than most of the older varieties you see in garden centers today.”

High-quality retail nurseries all along the East Coast (and westward into Ohio and the Chicago area) sell container-grown daylilies under two brand names that Apps has developed in conjunction with a wholesale firm that does the actual growing. Daylilies tagged with the “Happy Ever Appster” label are everblooming kinds, small in stature (about 18 inches tall) and bred by Apps. The ones bearing the “Trophytakers” label are large plants with big, sumptuous flowers. Not all Trophytakers are his own creations, but all have excelled in his trial beds. These are what Apps describes as “superior garden plants with first-rate modern daylily blooms.”

Improving the "Modern" Daylily

What daylily people mean when they talk about “modern daylilies” is the shape of the flower. The blossoms on old-fashioned kinds were shaped like trumpets, with deeply tapered throats. Modern daylilies have flatter, more open and rounded flowers, with very broad petals. These blossoms let you look easily into their centers, the better to show off the subtle colors and surface textures that breeders have created. Their more imposing profile also shows up better in the garden when viewed from a distance.

Apps loves this type of flower, but he also thinks many breeders have focused far too narrowly on the look of the flowers and forgotten about the look of the plants. Some gorgeous daylily flowers are produced by very spindly plants. Some spread quite slowly, taking two, three, or more years to double in size. That's why some varieties remain expensive for years.

All the daylilies Apps names, as well those from other hybridizers that he propagates for sale, are all-around good garden plants. His first love as a gardener was perennial borders, and his chief goal is still finding daylilies that fit comfortably among other perennials. That means all the plants he chooses are strong growers. Every cultivar that makes it onto his short list will increase about fivefold each season under a nursery regime and by two- or threefold in a typical garden. And they all have abundant, deep green leaves—foliage that looks good both before and after the flowering season. (Old-fashioned daylilies are perfectly strong growers but they often have yellowish leaves that become ratty after flowering is over. Yet another problem affecting daylily foliage is a rust disease.)

Other traits important in his eyes are the length of time the plant will bloom, how long the flowers stay open, and what the flowers look like after the show is over. Old-fashioned daylilies typically bloom for about three weeks. The flowers open a few hours after sunrise and wither late in the afternoon. Apps looks for varieties that bloom for at least six weeks, with individual blossoms that stay open for at least 12 hours, and 16 is what he thinks the standard should be for new varieties. His everblooming ‘Happy Returns’, to take an exceptional example, opens just before sunset and doesn't close until the evening of the following day.

Lastly, when the flower is finished, it shouldn't make a mess. But many gorgeous ones do, melting over the buds below and making it harder for those flowers to open properly. (People devoted to these plants go out every morning and deadhead individual blossoms, but who among us non-Hemerocallis-heads needs yet another garden chore?) This nasty habit, says Apps, will eventually be eliminated with good breeding. There are plenty of fine daylilies today whose spent flowers neatly roll up “into little dry, cigarettes” that drop off of their own accord.

Clearly, Apps was onto something big that first summer in Kentucky 20-odd years ago. Daylilies were indeed changing, and at an accelerating pace. The rest of us are fortunate to have breeders of his stripe at the helm, directing those changes beyond an uncontrolled explosion of extravagantly beautiful flowers, toward qualities that make the “modern” daylily a truly versatile and low-maintenance garden performer as well.