Outside a small town in Iowa, Mother Nature goes by a different name: Nan Ripley. Discontent with what she was finding in flower catalogs, the avid gardener began experimenting with daylilies, creating hybrids that swim in saturated colors and ripple in the breeze. Twenty years later, Ripley has literally changed the landscape, creating unforgettable blooms that rise and shine with the summer sun.
Surrounded by acres of cornfields and soybeans, Ripley’s garden erupts into color each summer, when more than 6,000 daylilies open their petals. Ripley, who once worked as an office manager at Iowa State University, always liked daylilies (Hemerocallis), but it wasn’t until a local enthusiast suggested that she create a bloom “no one had ever seen before” that her passion for hybridizing the summer perennial was ignited. “I jumped at the chance,” she says. “That very afternoon, I learned how to put pollen on a flower to make seeds.”
Nearly 20 years later, Ripley has introduced 43 named varieties recognized by the American Hemerocallis Society, and she plants around 2,000 seedlings in her garden each spring. Her propagation process is surprisingly hands-on: To create a new cultivar [a variety of plant originating and continuing in cultivation], she selects two flowers (or “parents”) to cross, then removes an anther covered in yellow pollen from one flower and dabs it on the stigma of the other. In two days’ time, if the seedpod begins to swell, she knows the cross was successful.
Ripley stores the seeds in the refrigerator for the winter, and plants them in the spring. It takes two years for seedlings to produce their first flowers, and a few more after that before she deems a new cultivar viable.
At first, Ripley was content just to create something new. Now she strives to propagate strong, diverse plants rife with flowers that “scream with color” and feature unusual ruffles, spiders or “petals that look like they are dancing, with or without a breeze,” she says. She has even bred cultivars that glitter with “diamond dusting. It reminds me of sunlight on fresh snow.”
The scientific name for the daylily, Hemerocallis, is derived from the ancient Greek for “day’s beauty,” since each individual flower opens in the morning and lasts only until the sun sets. But as one blossom closes, another on the same plant is getting ready to unfurl its petals the next morning. Ripley, who continues to create new beauties, happily shares that sense of infinite possibility.
MORE ABOUT DAYLILIES
LUSH LIFE: Daylilies thrive in full sun, though they can handle some afternoon shade. Plant them in spring. Water deeply once a week, and mulch around the base of the plants, leaving a small perimeter around the stems bare.
FIELD OF DREAMS: From early June until August, Ripley spends mornings wading through her lilies, looking for varieties to cross. Pollen doesn’t last all day on a flower, so she makes sure to capture it early in the morning, while it’s “dry and fluffy” and will stick to a moist stigma.
READY FOR ACTION: Horticulturists began experimenting with daylilies in the early-to-mid-1900s. Today, more than 80,000 registered cultivars exist.
1. “Winifred Esther” — This extravagant bloomer boasts up to 24 buds per scape.
2. “Supreme Scream” — The flowers on this prolific cultivar span up to 7 inches.
3. “With One Voice” — It’s polymorphic, which means it has a capacity for wide variation (this one is delicately frilled).
4. “Scarlet Pimpernel” — Ripley’s dark-burgundy award winner has curling petals and quilling sepals.
5. “Surpassing Glory” — Rich deep-purple petals have white edges that look painted on.
6. “Barb’s Beauty” — Its ruffled peach petals and eye are edged in bright red.
7. “Bob’s Hawkeye Beauty” — Featuring small, golden flowers with a maroon eye, this 2013 introduction grows more than 3 feet high.
8. “Behold and Believe'” — Lavishly ruffled, the soft pink-and-yellow blooms look like fluffy clouds at sunset.
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