Forty years ago, when Virginia Bresnahan moved to her present house in Deerfield, Ill., she brought a love of plant breeding along with her. Virginia was a rosarian and had a passion for hybridizing roses and tall bearded irises. However, as the trees around her new home grew, the yard got shadier and these sun-loving flowers began to struggle. Virginia switched her focus to daylilies, Siberian irises and hostas. She has been happily breeding these shade-tolerant perennials ever since.
Virginia began planting her current daylily gardens back in 1970, and they are now an American Hemerocallis (daylily) Society display garden. "I currently have more than 300 named daylily varieties and 250 seedlings growing in my suburban yard," she says. "Each year I weed out some of the old varieties and plant some new ones," she adds. Virginia likes breeding daylilies because they're easy to cross, grow well under all types of conditions, and they're beautiful. "They're irresistible," she exclaims. "I see two lovely flowers and think if I cross them I'll make another that's even lovelier," she says. One of the daylilies that Virginia has bred, which she called 'Golden Beryl', has been introduced into the commercial trade.
While Virginia's gardens still include Siberian iris, columbine, hostas, and other perennials, it's the daylilies that rule. Breeding them takes patience, organization and attention to detail. The trickiest part, though, is germinating the seed.
Virginia takes pollen from the anthers of a chosen plant and places it on the pistil of another choice daylily. She tags and numbers each cross in her "stud" book. Once the seedpods turn from green to brown, she gently squeezes the pods. If they "pop" open, it's time to harvest the seeds.
Seeds are collected in brown envelopes with the cross number and number of seeds written on top, and are then stored in the refrigerator for about four months. In December, Virginia germinates them under lights in a heated growing chamber in her carport. The heat in the growing box—plus heating mats—provides enough warmth for the seeds to germinate.
After much trial and error, Virginia has found the perfect system for starting daylily seeds. "I've tried many different seedstarting systems, but hands-down, the APS seedstarter is the best," says Virginia. "The cell sizes are large, so seedlings don't need to be transplanted right away. Most importantly, as the plants grow, the capillary matting keeps just enough moisture in the soil, so the daylilies thrive. I use the smaller celled APS-40 for fine-seeded perennials, such as hosta. For large-seeded plants, such as daylilies, I use the APS-24," she says. "There are lots of variables in seed germination, but the APS makes success more predictable," she says. "If the seed doesn't grow, I know it's bad seed, not the growing conditions," she says.
After growing the daylily seedlings for 2 to 3 months in the APS system, she transplants them into individual pots filled with Gardener's Supply Container Mix so they continue growing strong.
In late spring Virginia plants her daylily babies outdoors in the ground and she labels each one with a metal tag. "The squirrels love to dig up and move the white plastic markers, then I don't know what variety I have," she says. It takes three years of in-ground growing before the daylilies start to flower and show their full potential.
Being surrounded by hundreds of different varieties of daylilies makes it difficult for Virginia to name her favorites. "I do particularly like the big, fat, full-formed flowers and also the spider types," she says.
It seems breeding is habitat-forming. Virginia says she'll keep breeding and growing daylilies and other perennials as long as she has room to grow them. "If there's any lawn left in my yard, it's only because I can't grow flowers there!"
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