Carole Hunter: Always Growing Something New

After three decades of tending daylilies, this Rockford-area hybrid grower lives every day with a passion for sharing the enduring beauty of a summer bloomer.

Carole Hunter stands under a wooden pergola, looking out on the expansive, sun-soaked garden that surrounds her.

“This is my office,” she says, and waves toward the large field of garden plots where daylilies are in various stages of bloom.

This is Prairie’s Edge Gardens, 4735 Black Oak Trail in Rockford. Hunter’s piece of Illinois prairie is dedicated to discovering and growing daylilies in a stunning array of colors and varieties.

“We ran out of room at my last house,” she laughs. “That’s what happens when you hybridize daylilies.”

Daylilies, scientifically known as Hemerocallis, can be found in gardens all over the world. Cherished for their beauty, adaptability and diversity, they have captured the curiosity and affection of amateur gardeners and experts alike. Their versatility and tenacious nature make them suitable for all kinds of garden landscapes, from vibrant borders and combined plantings to container gardens in windowsills and patios. They have also undergone extensive hybridization, especially in the past century. There are almost 100,000 registered cultivars of daylilies, each with its own characteristics and features. Hunter, who calls herself a “hemeroholic,” is responsible for 21 registered hybrids, which she sells from her own garden and from J. Carlson Growers at 8938 Newburg Road, in Rockford.

Hunter’s passion for daylilies came naturally. She has always been a horticulturist at heart.
“It’s in my blood,” she says. “My family came to Nova Scotia in the 1700s. My family is still on that same property. They have a cranberry bog, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, fruit trees, veggies and flowers. That’s my heritage.”

After a career in education, Hunter decided to make a change. She went back to school for a degree in landscape design, then embarked on a new chapter doing landscape installations.

“I always wanted to be an artist when I was a kid, but I was terrible at drawing and painting,” she says. “When I went into landscape design, that became my art. The land was my canvas, and the plants were my paints.”

Through it all, Hunter was enamored with daylilies. They first captured her attention when a friend shared some with her.

“She just dug some up and gave them to me,” Hunter recalls. “That got me started. I’ve been growing daylilies now for over 30 years.”

In 2010, Hunter started to hybridize, finding characteristics she liked among her plants and creating new types of daylilies for customers and for herself.

“This is where art and science merges,” she says. “The whole point of hybridizing is to make something new and beautiful.”

The art and the science come together through cross-pollination, when pollen is exchanged between two varieties of daylily. Hunter finds two plants she wants to combine, removes the pollen from the stamen of one plant and places it on the pistil of another.

“It’s botany 101,” she says.

If the pollen successfully fertilizes the ovules at the base of the pistil, seed pods will develop and, when they’re ready, Hunter will gather them for next year’s planting.

When it comes to her methods, Hunter keeps it simple. She waters sparingly, saving most of her watering for newly planted seedlings. She avoids chemicals, choosing to let the preying mantis population handle her pest control. It helps that her flower of choice is so hardy.

Daylilies are an ancient and stoic species that have been around for more than four millennia.

“Confucius wrote a poem about how they were used as food and medicine,” says Hunter. “They’ve been around forever.”

With so many varieties to choose from, gardeners tend to like daylilies for different reasons.

When it comes to choosing which plants to hybridize, Hunter’s list of priorities might differ wildly from those of other growers. Her No. 1 goal is a plant that will rebloom during the short seasons of the Midwest. It’s a tall order.

“I collect daylilies from other hybridizers who think they might rebloom here in the north and I cross them,” she says. “I plant 1,000 to 2,000 seedlings a year and maybe get four that I keep after evaluating them for three or four years. It’s that hard.”

Keeping track of her progress is another challenge. Hunter has a complex system to determine the plants and seeds she wants to keep – and it includes labels, photos, spreadsheets and flags.
“I use a different flag color every year,” she says. “If there are five different flags on the plant, that means I’ve liked it for five years.”

When the snow falls, Hunter stays busy by updating her comprehensive database.
“I take a bazillion photos,” she says. “I take the photos, make folders and work on my spreadsheets.”

She also starts planting in January and February, choosing which seeds she’ll start from the thousands she’s cultivated.

“I have a light on a track in the basement, so I get them started. Then I bring them out in April,” she says.

Hunter also enjoys meeting with her fellow green thumbs and presenting at events like the PBS Wisconsin Garden & Landscape Expo, in Madison, Wis.

“I’ve presented there a couple of times,” she says. “It’s great for someone like me because, as a gardener in February, you need a fix.”

When it comes to naming her hybrids, Hunter takes inspiration, naturally, from a song with a flower in its name. She is currently working through the lyrics of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the Stephen Sondheim musical “Gypsy.”

“My first one was called ‘Just the Beginning,’” she laughs. “I’ve got ‘Blow a Kiss,’‘Take a Bow’ and ‘Stand the World on its Ear.’”

While Hunter works her way through the song, there is one lyric in particular that she’s saving for a special plant.

“I’m holding ‘Just You Wait’ until I have one that blooms late in the season,” she says.
As a seller, Hunter enjoys welcoming customers to her garden, where they can peruse her offerings. She is also generous with her advice and encouragement for new growers. One of her tips is to buy plants that were raised in this region.

“Since we’re in the north, make sure you buy daylilies from someone in the north,” she says. “There are gorgeous daylilies in Florida, but we don’t have the same climate here.”

Another factor that differs from garden to garden is soil type. Given their hardy nature, daylilies tend to thrive in almost any type of soil.

“I’ve got really good soil,” says Hunter, “but a daylily can grow right through the foundation of your house.”

Once they’re in the ground, caring for them is relatively straightforward.
“Daylilies like sun and water,” says Hunter.

A love of the sun is clearly something Hunter shares with her flowers. She finds a day strolling through the garden, examining her daylilies, is a day well spent.

“I love being out here, listening to the birds,” she says. “The other day I had a little tree frog that napped the whole day on a spent bloom.”

After growing daylilies for 30 years and hybridizing them over a decade, Hunter still finds a thrill in the work she’s doing, particularly in early summer when the daylilies are blooming.
“When you hybridize, in July every day is like Christmas day,” she says. “Every bloom is different, and you always see something new. It’s like meeting a brand-new baby.”