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Painting with pollen

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Daylily farmers spend decades creating 750 varieties

By Meaghan Downs

The semi-trailer stuffed with flowers would never be able to climb the hill.   
David Kirchhoff and Mort Morss had hired five tractor-trailers — stacked five levels high with thousands of their prize-winning daylily hybrids — to follow them one by one, week by week from Florida to their new business location in Lawrenceburg.  
The steep gravel drive off Gilberts Creek Road proved to be as insurmountable an ascent as climbing a mountain.  
All of the perennials, neatly organized inside in the first truck to arrive in Lawrenceburg, needed to be pulled off the trailer and hauled up the driveway in smaller vehicles.
It took weeks for Kirchhoff and Morss — daylily hybridizers and owners of Daylily World — to sort them.
“It was chaos,” Kirchhoff said of their move to Lawrenceburg in 2006.
Seven years later, Kirchhoff and Morss sit at a picnic table surrounded by an acre of blooming daylilies: decades of trial and error in cross-breeding more than 750 “cultivars” or hybrid varieties.
Neither Kirchhoff, 71, nor Morss, 73, said they expected to make a career of growing daylilies, these “beauty for a day” blooms.  
Or expected to move to Kentucky, an idea they had filed away in the late 1980s after Morss visited Lexington for a guest speaking engagement.
“I had no idea I was going to do this,” Morss, who joined Kirchhoff in the daylily farming venture in the early ‘70s, said of his job cross breeding daylilies. “I thought I was going to do art or something.”
Kirchhoff, however, comes from a lineage of horticulturists.
He said his mother and father owned a successful gladiola business in Florida and when Kirchhoff Gladiolus of Unusual Merit was sold, his father E.D. Kirchhoff began hybridizing daylilies as a hobby.
Kirchhoff, then about 27, had left a career in the music industry in merchandising after a bad injury left him partially paralyzed.
“I had to reinvent my life, move back to Florida,” he said.
When Kirchhoff’s parents died seven weeks apart in 1978, Kirchhoff and Morss (who Kirchhoff convinced to join him in Florida from California in 1972), took over the Kirchhoff hybridizing hobby and made Daylily World into their own full-time business by 1984.
Kirchhoff said he remembers his first attempt at a daylily hybrid at age 15.
He had taken a single, small yellow daylily, “Little Cherub,” and crossed it with an unknown, rusty red seedling. His parents held off on planting their son’s experiment, waiting so that Kirchhoff could see the first bloom of his original cross when he came back from college.
The blooms were a disappointment, Kirchhoff said.
“We can throw those all away because they’re obviously not worth keeping,” Kirchhoff remembered.
But a daylily fever took hold, Kirchhoff said.
“It becomes a world,” he said. “We all pretend we’re painting with pollen.”
Morss’ artistic eye lends itself well to crossbreeding daylilies, Kirchhoff said.
Morss is particularly known for producing flowers with a “watermark” pattern, the petals near the flower’s throat looking as though brushed with watercolor paint.
In the years since Morss joined Kirchhoff in Florida and “graduated” from weeder to fellow hybridizer, Morss has been reading about the genetics of different cultivars.
Perhaps even a few daylily cookbooks?
Morss said anyone can eat the buds of the daylily (best when harvested three days before the bud opens) or the flower petals themselves.
“It tastes a little like Bibb lettuce, but with a little bite,” Morss said, mentioning that the flowers, including the roots, are completely edible.
Daylily World grows about 30,000 different daylily seedlings, but only the best daylilies make it to the naming stage, the hybridized “cultivars” that Kirchhoff and Morss believe have the quality, bloom production and distinctiveness to be sold to a waiting domestic and international market.
“I’m looking closely at the double red,” Kirchhoff said of one particular cross during a tour of the garden.
Daylilies are shipped to customers “bare root,” that is, uprooted from the ground and sold with roots, “crown” and about 6 inches of the green “fan” attached for future planting.
The best and brightest of the cultivars are presented to online customers in an “introduction,” much like a runway clothing line introduced for a spring collection.
Daylily World’s select plants range in price from $17.50 to more than $275, depending on the demand and availability of the desired hybrid.
For Daylily World’s Spring 2013 introduction, Kirchhoff and Morss presented 14 cultivars — from the purple watermarked “Solo Girl” named after their late German Shepherd to Peppermint Truffle Cake, a “peppermint and ice-cream pink peony double” as described in Daylily World’s newest catalog.
The naming convention for daylilies does not need to follow a pedigree in tracing back any kind of family tree of plant parentage.
Daylily World has a list of about 1,000 potential names including movies, books, celebrities, tubes of lipstick and even religious symbology, Kirchhoff said.
 “It can be anything you want, you can make it into a political statement if you want,” he said.
Kirchhoff and Morss pay often pay homage to friends and family in the names of their flowers. Some customers chose their own daylilies for friends, or those grieving the loss of a loved one.
Kirchhoff and Morss also have had their daylilies chosen and named after notable people and celebrities, including Betty Ford and former TV Catwoman actress Julie Newmar.
Newmar made the crucial mistake of choosing a hybrid of Morss’ instead of Kirchhoff’s, Kirchhoff joked.
“I fell out of love with her a little bit, but not too much,” Kirchhoff said.
Only one of their hundreds of named daylilies has been patented — a cross of Kirchhoff’s.
There’s only so much Kirchhoff and Morss can do to protect their daylily product, they said, from those who’d take their unique variants and sell them without attribution for mass production.
Morss said he’s seen one of his award-winning daylilies, “Paper Butterfly,” sold in a central Kentucky nursery, but with no mention of the hybridizer’s name or the date the cross was created, a typical attribution among daylily growers.
But Kirchhoff and Morss both say they don’t really have time to worry about that — they’re too busy creating new hybrids.
“It would be impossible to answer that question,” Kirchhoff said when asked what his favorite hybrid is. “I used to answer that question, ‘It’s the last one I’ve looked at.’”
On his Gilberts Creek Road farm, Kirchhoff can look about and see row upon row of his and Morss’ daylilies, but they’re actually looking to consolidate some of the beds and sell off some plants to make room for new seedlings.
Members of the American Hemerocallis Society, Kirchhoff and Morss have traveled to Australia, New Zealand and Italy in the name of daylilies and daylily culture.
They have customers on all continents except Antarctica, Kirchhoff said.
So retirement is tempting, but they’re not ready to leave their daylily flower beds fallow.
“I know I can have a good time and all [in retirement], but I’m just not ready to stop,” Morss said.