By Catherine Pritchard
In a quiet neighborhood near Hope Mills, a narrow street dead-ends at a tree-shrouded driveway.
A small sign promises something’s ahead.
“Welcome,” it says. “Mercers’ Garden.”
Even so, you might wonder. Enter the driveway and there’s a house and a carport. Four dogs are probably racing to meet you. Trees and bushes are the most obvious signs of vegetation.
But then you might catch a glimpse of something. Beyond the carport, there’s an open swath of green. If you’re lucky, and you’re glimpsing this on the right day in spring or summer, you’ll see color dotted throughout the green – oranges, yellows, reds, purples and all the shades between. You’re lucky then because the daylilies are in bloom – thousands and thousands of them. This is Roger Mercer’s garden.
Mercer, a writer and retired newspaper journalist, has been growing and breeding daylilies on this land since he moved to Fayetteville from Virginia in the ‘80s.
When he arrived, the property was a sandy wasteland, home to weeds and scrawny pines.
Today, it’s a verdant garden where Mercer operates what he says is the largest daylily breeding enterprise in the world. At any given time, 250,000 daylilies are planted there, including dozens of varieties created and sold by Mercer to customers around the world.
Mercer’s love for growing things began when he was a boy. His aunt gave him some hollyhock and poppy seeds and he planted them. Beautiful flowers sprouted. “I was hooked,” he said.
In Virginia, as a young journalist, he indulged his passion for horticulture by growing corn in his front yard – a gardening feat unappreciated by his neighbors – and by converting his back porch into a greenhouse for some of his other plants.
When he moved to Fayetteville to take a job with The Fayetteville Observer, he bought the land near Hope Mills so he could try to create a garden.
His first plantings included 2,000 crocuses and 100 President canna lilies that he’d brought with him. The following spring, hardly any of the flowers came up. Voles had eaten their roots.
Undeterred, Mercer turned his focus to daylilies, a perennial that had already drawn his attention because of the remarkable variations that breeders had achieved in just a few decades.
For centuries, daylilies came in a few basic colors – yellow, orange and fulvous (a dull reddish-yellow). Then people breeding the plants and, in the 1930s, hybridizing began in earnest in the United States and England, according to the American Daylily Society.
Today, there are more than 45,000 named varieties of daylilies, including nearly 300 bred by Mercer. They come in a wide range of colors, including near-whites, pastels, yellows, oranges, pinks, vivid reds, crimson, purple, nearly true-blue and “fabulous blends,” the Daylily Society says. Hybridizers are pursuing pure white and pure blue. They also come in a wide range of sizes and flower forms.
Mercer says many daylily breeders aim only to create the prettiest flower they can, which sounds reasonable.
Mercer says he’s also aiming for beauty – but only if it comes in a flower that’s tough enough to survive and still thrive in the face of such things as sudden freezes, intense summer heat, insect attacks, inadvertent mowing and overgrowth by weeds. They also have to be vole-proof. “I want to create daylilies that will live 1,000 years,” he says.
Each year, Mercer says he plants 100,000 seedlings. Since those double in a year’s time, that’s 200,000 plants and that’s too many with all the others he already has. So he can afford to be ruthless with daylilies that don’t meet those standards. At the first sign of weakness, he pulls them out and composts them.
He does keep daylilies bred by others to see how they do. He says many languish after a year or two because they weren’t bred to last.
Daylilies that thrive and that have a desirable trait may be used in cross-breeding.
Those that are remarkable may get named and registered with the American Hemerocallis Society, where Mercer’s creations account for 296 entries. To come up with unique names for a new hybrid where thousands already exist, Mercer sometimes looks to the flower’s appearance – Alabaster Gleam, Garnet Gift or Ruffled Wow. The name might include an apparent nod to the daylily’s “parents” – Gossamer Parasol was created from a cross of Vision of Beauty and Fairy Tale Pink, for example.
And then there are the people in his life. Mercer has named several flowers for his wife, Maureen, including Awesome Maureen and Maureen’s Rainbow. Many are named for people he worked with at The Fayetteville Observer and its predecessor papers (The Fayetteville Times and The Fayetteville Observer-Times), including former copydesk chief Charles Rondinelli, former managing editor Michael Arnholt and co-workers Webster Lupton and Suzanne Schubert. He once named a flower for a stranger who called him and begged him for the honor. She never contacted him again.
Mercer has done plenty of other things along the way, including serving as an infantry officer in Vietnam, attending law school and playing saxophone in a ‘60s pop band that had two Top 10 hits. He still plays the sax today with a local rock band named Almost Tomorrow, after one of his daylilies.
He grows plenty of other plants, including camellias, magnolias and azaleas.
And he is one of the key founders of the Cape Fear Botanical Garden. In 1989, the garden was just a vision – a grand one – conceived by Mercer, Martha Duell and Bruce Williams. Over time, their vision turned a one-time city park into what’s now a 70-acre botanical jewel that’s become a magnet for visitors and events. Mercer knows every inch of the place and can walk through talking knowledgeably about every plant.
But one plant remains his primary passion.
“I just want to make good daylilies,” he says.