Missouri hybridizers look to create diverse day lilies

Sunday, July 6, 2008 | 7:25 p.m. CDT; updated 10:58 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Lloyd Calvin pollinates a day lily at his home garden. Calvin carefully catalogs his cross-pollination efforts so that new combinations of petal colors and shapes can be recreated later.

COLUMBIA — The flowers are planted in the style of cornrows. Deep-red, misty pink and eggplant-purple blooms stand in row-by-row succession. This is not a flower garden. This is an open-air laboratory.

The laboratory belongs to Lloyd Calvin, a day lily hybridizer. Calvin is one of a number in the area who have made a hobby of tinkering with the coloring, shape and texture of day lilies in search of the perfect hybrid ready for registration.

If you go

What: Day Lily Show sponsored by Central Missouri Hemerocallis Society Where: Friends Room of the Columbia Public Library When: 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 12

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Day lilies are appealing for a number of reasons. The hybridization process is simple — the procedure could be taught in a basic high school science course. Also, it’s a hardy perennial plant that comes back every year.

When Calvin initially got into hybridizing, he experimented with irises, but quickly gave up when insects ravaged his plants.

“Them ol’ day lilies don’t have too many enemies,” Calvin said.

Since the 1980’s, Calvin, a retired plumber, has spent summer mornings transferring pollen from a stamen — the male part — of one flower to the pistil — the female part — of another. This activity, normally performed by bees and butterflies, produces a seed pod just below the bloom. The seed pod is full of seeds from the two crossed plants.

Calvin’s understanding of genetics goes as far as to know that a tetraploid day lily has double the chromosomes of a diploid variety at 22 chromosomes. But he doesn’t know enough to explain why two of the same exact yellow flower, when crossed, produce maybe some yellows, maybe a purple, maybe a pink flower.

It’s not the book science that fascinates Calvin. It’s the experimentation, the lure of the unknown. He once crossed a dark purple with a coral flower in hopes of getting a bright purple bloom he could call Purple Scream. The bloom turned out bright red.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Calvin draws inspiration from other explorers of the unknown: “I never miss Star Trek,” Calvin said.

Calvin’s garden, Voyager Day Lily Garden, is named after the Star Trek Voyager spacecraft. Calvin’s original idea was to name all his hybrids after Star Trek characters, but he ran into some trademark infringement issues. Still, one of his hybrids, Neelix, is named after a character on Star Trek Voyager.

Day lily hybridizers officially name and register hybrids that are particularly desirable. Unique coloring, gold edging, and hardiness are some of the sought-after traits. But Calvin’s attitude toward registering his hybrids is very pragmatic, “If I like it and it does good for me, then I register it.”

Calvin has registered 27 day lilies.

Bob McConnell, another local hybridizer and owner of McConnell’s Plantland, takes a more cautious approach to registering his hybrids. McConnell says that if he’s going to put his name on something, he wants it to be good: “I would say I’m pretty choosy.”

McConnell says that of the 10,000 to 15,000 seedlings he’s cultivated while hybridizing, so far he’s named and registered four.

Both Calvin and McConnell donated at least one of their hybrids to the Missouri hybridizers day lily bed at Bradford Research and Extension Center.

The Missouri hybridizers bed was an initiative of the local Day Lily Club, of which Calvin and McConnell are both members.

When asked by Bradford Research and Extension Center to donate a bed of identified, labeled day lilies, the Day Lily Club decided to give the bed the theme “Hybridizers of Missouri.” The goal was to obtain at least one specimen from each day lily hybridizer in Missouri.

Bradford Research and Extension Center, besides its research corn, wheat and soybeans fields, has a number of flower beds open to public viewing.

There are a lot of day lily hybridizers in the area, said Tim Reinbott from Bradford Research and Extension Center. The purpose of the day lily bed is to “bring the public awareness of what’s out there,” Reinbott said.

All the flowers were donated by club members.

The Day Lily Club will also be hosting a competitive Day Lily Show at Daniel Boone Regional Library on Saturday. Some area hybridizers, including McConnell, will be entering.

Calvin says he’s entered day lily shows in the past, but he doesn’t anymore. “It’s just too much trouble.”

Each individual day lily bloom stays open only one day — hence the name. Each plant can have anywhere from five to fifty blooms. Thus, entering a show is unpredictable. “You don’t know what you’ll have blooming,” Calvin said.

All the primping and the plucking might win the judges’ votes, but Calvin says he has no desire to “groom them things.”

Spoken like a true scientist.

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