As with most southerners, I grew up with day lilies as one of the strong symbols of summer. Growing up in the south I had their presence burned into my memory for that season, along with the humidity, long days, Little League baseball, swimming and the periodic use of the air conditioner. Wander any southern yard during summer and there they would be, reaching up to the sky like upside down church bells to catch the sun and display their colors. Too far south to really do tulips justice (who wants a flower you have to dig up and freeze every year?) we made day lilies our trumpets for the season.
I never was much for growing flowers – too much of an instant gratification kid, I guess. But day lilies were so simple even I was attracted to their planting, watering and weeding. Plant once and enjoy flowers forever, it seemed; I had no idea about bulbs, rhizomes and perennial things. The beds would get crowded to the point where few flowers showed up so my father would dig them up and we’d separate them, creating whole new beds around the edges of the house, the driveway, the trees, the hedge – wherever a line of flowers would fit.
What truly got me interested, though, was a visit to a distant relative who cultivated day lilies. He was on my father’s side, somewhere on an indirect branch of the family tree that we didn’t visit very often. As a kid knowing who was related to whom was never a priority for me (much to my adult dismay). I’d just tag along for the long meetings during vacations, finding something to entertain myself while the adults caught up on news and happenings. Whatever did they find to talk about for so long back then?
Well, this visit was less for news and more for information. My parents were planting flowers in the yard of our house, a place they’d built and we’d occupied only for a couple of years. We’re not talking landscape design here – just some flowers to bring texture and color to the yard and, for me, hopefully reduce the amount of grass requiring cutting each year. This relative was willing to hand out day lily bulbs we could plant, knowing we’d have flowers within the year and defining patches of tall, green stalks from then on.
Looking over his very impressive garden of multicolored samples I asked how could we have colors like that in our yard? Did he give us a collection of different colors to plant? He told me changing colors was easy and then gave me my first genetics lesson on how to cross-pollinate day lilies. He was an old hand at it, cross-breeding his flowers for color, shape, size, stamina, etc. and apparently had developed quite a reputation in the area for his unique varieties. I simply thought it was very cool, to be able to craft a color just by such a simple act. It was a few years later I learned about Gregor Mendel and his experiments; by then I’d already variegated almost all the lilies we’d planted and was now trying to get back some pure colors. I didn’t take the good notes Mendel did – my work was pretty hit or miss – so I never really got what I wanted. And the interest pretty much died after three or four years. The memory, however, remained and came back in every genetics class I took afterwards. I never was that good at genetics but I could make day lilies change there colors year after year.
In spite of my biological meddling the plants thrived, however, and are still probably growing in that yard all these years later. Reminding the surrounding southern neighborhood that summer is here to stay for a while and showing off the brief efforts of a kid who was amazed by a distant relative.