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By JOHN HOWARD HART COUNTY — Herbie Phelps is a scientist.
His laboratory is 480 acres of loose sandy soil in Hart County. His experiment is the daylily.
Herbie and his wife, Gale, hybridize daylilies, which means they cross or breed one daylily flower to another. Only in the case of the Phelpses, we’re talking thousands — more than 50,000, in fact.
Two large greenhouses are packed full of seedlings waiting to bloom. There’s barely room to walk as I search for the most anxious plants that have revealed their firstborn for my eyes and camera. I am amazed at the color, the wonder —perfect flowers holding snapshot poses unlike anything under the sun. Pastel lavenders, bright reds, tangerine and mysterious marmalade present a spectrum of color as if painted by some famous artist from Spain on a canvas of a delicate flower.
Herbie and his wife started hybridizing daylilies in the early 1990s as a self-proclaimed hobby of tinkering with the flowers. But the hobby became a passion that has created a wonderland of daylilies, which is what the Phelpses call this place.
Herbie’s influence and early guidance came from Joe Huber of Huber Farms in Starlight, Indiana. Huber showed Phelps how to hybridize the daylily and the remarkable results that transformed.
Phelps also learned a few tricks from other well-known hybridizers such as John Rice of Lexington. But it wasn’t until two years ago, when the Phelpses met Cindy and Larry Grace of Graceland Gardens in Newton, Ala., that their world changed forever.
The Graces showed Phelps a successful technique of converting a diploid flower to a tetraploid flower. A diploid is a natural daylily with 22 chromosomes. Converting a diploid to a tetraploid doubles the chromosomes to 44 resulting in a bigger, stronger plant with larger and bolder flowers.
Phelps began registering his daylilies and the reputation for his outstanding introductions such as Ashton’s Giggles and Heaven’s Artwork grew and grew. Now Phelps is shipping plants all over the world, and his eye of color is gaining national recognition.
Phelps strives for a large flower (usually 6 to 8 inches across) with outstanding color, a bi-tone splash of different colors surrounding the outer edges (sepals) of the flower. Phelps also likes to see a flower with ruffled edges and teeth, which are the lining to the sepals. A bold watermark, which is usually chartreuse or apple green, should create a nice background for the prominent colors of the flower. To see more go to www.wonderlandofdaylilies.com. Grow your own hybrid daylilies If you are curious about breeding daylilies, here are a few steps to guide you through the process.
John W. Howard is a trained master gardener, Kentucky certified nurseryman and published poet. He gardens in eastern Hardin County and enjoys a variety of plants such as Japanese Maples, dwarf conifers and daylilies.