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Seize the Daylily 

A Greensboro business pushes the prolific perennial

"Hot Lips." "Indiscreet." "Child Bride." "Exotic Candy." No, they're not porn stars -- although there are certain anatomical similarities. These budding beauties are among the 800 varieties of Hemerocallis at Vermont Daylilies in Greensboro. In the full bloom of summer, the company's 12-page "catalogue," which is really more like a spreadsheet, is illustrated by a serpentine "display garden" of ruffled pink, deep mahogany, burnt sienna, creamy yellow and pale peach.

Stuck with the image of the archetypal orange daylily? So are some customers. That's why Vermont Daylilies owners John and Kathy Hunt also carry the fast-spreading variety that grows wild all over the state. More often, though, people will come and say, 'I never thought daylilies could be like this,' " Kathy comments. "'I always thought of those awful orange ones.'" Here the fleshy pink "Barbara Mitchell" defers to the deep purple "Bela Lugosi," which is upstaged by "Best Beau" in mauve with burgundy veins and a wide green throat.

"They're creating daylilies that look nothing like they did 40 or 50 years ago," John says of the hybridizers, a.k.a. "pollen dabbers," who have expanded the number of available daylily varieties to somewhere around 50,000. "Now they're doing ruffles, golden edges and different-colored eye zones." With their shredded petals, the "spiders" look like fireworks. The rose-like "doubles" feature petals with more than the standard six segments.

"We have one that is so small -- the "Penny's Worth" -- it looks like little blades of grass," Kathy adds. The flower is an inch and a quarter in diameter.

"Walking through the garden, people get grabbed by a flower," she says. They're planted in alphabetical order so you can follow along with the list, which provides important details such as projected height, coloring, bloom season -- even the date and source of hybridization. The "Moonlight" dates back to 1937. Others, like "Gentle Manners," are 21st-century inventions.

To some degree, the price per plant depends on how recently it was introduced. "Some people won't blink at spending $75 on a daylily, but that's not our market," Kathy says, noting that most of the varieties at Vermont Daylilies sell for between $7 and $15 a pot. Last year's priciest plant was "Ida's Magic," an amber-peach flower etched in gold, at $35.

Awards, too, are noted in the catalogue. The American Hemerocallis Society gives out eight every year, from "best spider daylily" to "outstanding beauty and performance" over a wide area of the country. John maintains a special garden of annual winners that dates back to 1972. "You can see the progression," he says, noting the most-favored flowers have become more and more elaborate. Picking the perfect bloom is a little like shopping for wine -- there's a lot to consider, including personal taste, price and compatibility with the "entrée," which in this case may be other flowers or the color of a house.

But unlike a bottle of wine, the daylily keeps on giving. While its strong-scented "Asiatic lily" relative grows from a bulb, these perennials have a fibrous root system that makes them prolific propagators. "Different varieties expand faster than others," says John, an experienced horticulturalist who also runs his own contracting business. Generally speaking, though, the plants double in size every year. They're adaptable to all kinds of conditions, including extremely cold ones, and stand up to pests, drought and poor soil. Shade is OK, too, and may protect darker varieties from fading.

"They really are virtually indestructible," John says of the dormant varieties he and Kathy carry. "You have to work pretty hard to kill them."

*****

Four days before the company's "soft opening," Kathy and John are watching two employees work the moist, dark earth behind the Lakeview Inn. They're separating new growth from the mother plants and labeling and potting the saleable offspring in containers fortified with homemade compost.

The Hunts used to own all of this land; in 1996, they bought and renovated the Lakeview Inn, then a derelict building. John did most of the fix-up work himself and, two years later, decided he wanted a side business to complement the innkeeping. Instead of starting from scratch, he and Kathy decided to buy an existing nursery. "Dave and Andrea Perham had been running Vermont Daylilies for 10 years on Barr Hill," John explains, pointing to a patchwork rise of mauve forest and light-green farmland in the distance. Lewis and Nancy Hill operated it for the decade prior.

With a mini-excavator and a farmer friend, John moved all the plants to the current location. He dug up and relocated 1500 clumps of daylilies in 12 hours. "We didn't lose a single one," John reports, noting the plants can live up to three weeks out of the soil.

But roots only go so deep. Last year, the Hunts sold the Lakeview Inn to a California couple and entered into a leasing arrangement that allowed them to continue operating on the property. It seemed like a win-win situation. The gardens are a natural extension of the inn -- and a perfect spot for weddings. The shared driveway sealed the deal.

But the couples didn't get along; even in the heat of summer, guests could feel the chill between them. The Hunts considered moving to a new location, but now they say the inn is rumored to be for sale again.

What goes around comes around, you might say. Daylilies, in particular, demonstrate that phenomenon. True to its name, the individual flower lasts only a day -- which tends to keep daylilies out of cut-flower arrangements -- but a single clump may keep blooming for two to three weeks. Some "re-bloomers" rest and flower again. "Every day you get up and deadhead the ones that had their day, so the next one will have its opportunity," Kathy says. She describes the process as "meditative," but, looking around, she adds, "Of course, with so many daylilies, it gets really frustrating."

For all the dead foliage, and last year's signage, it's hard to believe that in six weeks this winter-worn landscape will be exploding in fabulous flora. Different varieties take turns blooming -- and many gardeners go to great lengths to choreograph the flowering spectacle in their own plots. But even if you don't know a yellow-haloed "Chorus Line" from a rose-and-violet "Houdini," these gardens in July and August put on quite a show. Vermont Daylilies carries other perennials, such as hostas, phlox, geraniums, peonies and astilbe. Don't want to get your hands dirty? Kathy also sells some antiques.

Customers -- 80 percent of them Vermonters -- drive from as far as Burlington, Middlebury and Rutland to browse. "People tend to start coming by when they see daylilies blooming," John says, and a one-hour stroll quickly turns into an all-afternoon activity when you're trying to choose among them. By the end of July, supplies start running low; renewable though it is, the daylily can only do so much dividing. Yellow tags left over from last season indicate some of the regular sellouts: the big, red "Baja;" the "Gentle Shepherd," described as the "whitest of the near-whites;" and the very late-blooming "Border Giant." Also, the purple "Russian Rhapsody." "Basically, everything besides yellow and orange," John says with a chuckle.

Every business tries to satisfy its customers, and Vermont Daylilies is no exception. But not being able to give them everything they want -- on the first visit -- actually works to the Hunts' perennial advantage. In fact, it's a crucial part of their marketing strategy. While "most people who see the garden leave with at least a few pots," John notes, they also tend to "get addicted." That increases the chances they'll come back with friends next year -- "earlier and with a list."

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Paula Routly

Paula Routly

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Paula Routly is the cofounder, publisher and coeditor of Seven Days.

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