This Thing Called Courage

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Local Daylily Breeder

From today's Boston Globe

The quest - hybrids that flower longer
By Irene Sege, Globe Staff August 31, 2008
ARLINGTON - Mike Huben spends enough time working with flowers and thinking about flowers and savoring their blooms from February to November that one might think his small plot of earth would win some kind of garden beautiful recognition.
Not so. As dedicated to flora as Huben is, he is more scientist than showman. His primary puzzle? To develop hybrid daylilies that flower for longer than the few short weeks from mid-July to early August that is typical in the Northeast. The 400 daylily varieties and 3,000 seedlings that crowd his yard would certainly grow into fuller and more attractive specimens if he would just give them a little space. He doesn't weed or water with any regularity. The little white tags hanging on strings from many of Huben's plants record parentage but do little to enhance his garden's aesthetics. His one-sixth of an acre gets less sun than daylilies usually prefer.
What the deliberately suboptimal conditions provide is a setting that promotes survival of the hardiest. Since 2001, Huben, a high school math teacher, has named and registered nine varieties of daylilies, of which seven have long blooming seasons. A commercial nursery is evaluating another of his long-blooming hybrids for patent, and if it passes muster it would join a small cadre of patented reblooming daylilies, the most successful of which generate hundreds of thousands of plant sales per season.
"I have things that will bloom 11 weeks in my garden. Much longer in other people's," Huben said. "The reason I'm doing this successfully is I have a terrible garden. Most people fertilize and weed and water. That's the wrong thing to do if you're a plant breeder. If you're a plant breeder the key is selection. I have to give it conditions that deter and it reblooms anyway."
Daylily aficionados often try to create hybrids, whether for color or shape or size or length of blooming season, in part because of what Huben calls the "huge sexual parts even a blind person could deal with" that make cross-pollination so easy there are 62,000 registered day lily varieties. Huben, 53, is one of the few growers in the region concentrating on producing plants that are long-blooming, whether by building new buds or sprouting new stalks - the only ways to lengthen the blooming season of a plant whose individual flowers, as its name attests, last one day.
This year Harmon Hill Farm in Hudson, N.H., started including Huben's hybrids in its inventory of 900 varieties of daylily. Huben is a longtime member of the New England Daylily Society. He provides instruction to judges in botanical contests, acts as auctioneer at Society plant sales, and generally serves as what Harmon Hill owner Carl Harmon calls "a great ambassador for the daylily."
"There are very few people in this area who are hybridizing to start early and go all season. Around here that would be Mike," said Society treasurer Jocelyn Spragg. "He's pretty well known for his hybridizing goals."
The queen of long-blooming daylilies is top-selling Stella De Oro, which produces golden yellow flowers on and off from mid-June to the first frost. Yet 33 years after it was introduced, many daylily fans seek long bloomers of different colors that thrive in this climate. "A lot of people are a little tired of it," Spragg said.
In promoting his first registered hybrid, "Early and Often," an award-winning daylily with pale peach flowers that he introduced in 2001, Huben boasts on his website, "At last: a northern rebloomer that isn't yellow or gold." Of "Snowy Stella," introduced in 2007, he proclaims, "At last, Stella De Oro's rebloom is available in a near-white." Huben's ultimate goal is a long-blooming daylily with pure white flowers. He is so focused on this quest that he almost didn't introduce this year's entrant, "Vanilla Gorilla," which has cascading pale yellow flowers but doesn't rebloom.
"He's not known for super-fancy daylilies. He's interested in plants that rebloom. The ones that rebloom are not as fancy, but they're great garden plants," said Harmon. "His Early and Often blooms from early June to frost. Stella De Oro actually stops for a few periods and rests. Early and Often does not take any breaks. It's one of the backbones of his hybridizing."
One recent overcast afternoon, Huben pulled the stamen, with pollen on its end, from a purple daylily called Ruffles and Lavender and touched it to the stigma of a coral flower called Final Touch. In six weeks he'll have seeds to plant. "Maybe some of the offspring will bud-build more," he said. "Maybe I get something that's better looking than the parents."
Huben's quest requires extraordinary patience. During peak pollinating season, he works six hours a day in his garden. Snowy Stella is the product of four generations of cross-pollination and one decade of Huben's stewardship.
"Each generation takes two years to bloom, and I may not know if I want to use it until the third year. It's a long cycle," Huben said. "A lot of breeders won't make a cross unless they envision an immediate result."
Huben will ultimately reject most of what fills his yard, discarding the daylily that had eight buds, for instance, in favor of a sibling plant with 40. "When I grow 1,000 seedlings maybe I'll keep 20," he said. "I rule out a lot of things because they have too few buds or they don't rebloom . . . Plants that are weak growers don't perform and don't get a second look."
Breeding daylilies is only one of Huben's avocations. His garden is home to 200 other perennials, including a large white red-eyed hibiscus and pale pink phlox on a tower of variegated leaves. His flowering season begins in February with the small pale yellow flowers of winter jasmine and ends in November with lavender spheres of flowers on Japanese chives.
Huben also practices and teaches aikido and runs a website dedicated to critiquing libertarianism. He is fascinated by bugs, particularly mites and wasps that are parasites on cockroach egg cases, and is a member of the 134-year-old Cambridge Entomological Society. He returned from a year of collecting bugs in Ecuador with 7,000 pinned specimens, including a brilliant green scarab beetle, a clear-winged butterfly, and a huge grasshopper that clawed him bloody.
"I'm an all-round nerd," Huben said. "I find it important to switch between hobbies so I don't get bored."
As summer ends, Huben, who changed careers five years ago after a quarter-century in computers, prepares for a new year of teaching math at Boston Latin Academy. He won't have as much time to spend in his garden, but no matter. He plans once again to advise the school's greenhouse club.


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