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Daylily champion Roger Mercer, longtime garden columnist, dies at age 76

Plant expert was among the founders of Cape Fear Botanical Garden


Roger Mercer was a man of many passions: Gardening; writing; newspapers; music; friends; community; and his wife, Maureen.

And then there were daylilies.

Mercer, a longtime garden columnist for The Fayetteville Observer and its predecessor newspapers and the owner of Mercers’ Garden near Hope Mills, died June 15 at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, according to longtime friend Chuck Umstead.

He was 76.

Mercer had been in the cardiac intensive care unit for about three weeks, Umstead said.

Mercer also was a frequent contributor to CityView, writing stories about gardening for the magazine.

Umstead said he took a class on daylilies at Mercers’ Garden and became good friends with Mercer. He lives close to the garden.

“My mom told me that I needed to go see Roger Mercer when I moved here,” said Umstead, who has lived in the Fayetteville area about 18 years.

“We became closer friends when I found out he played the saxophone,” said Umstead, who is also a musician.

He recalls Mercer telling him about the times he played in “smokey bars” at age 15 — “back in the day when you could get away with that kind of thing.”

“He was extremely easygoing and friendly,” Umstead said. “He was a Renaissance man. He knew a lot of cutting-edge things about — things.”

Perennial hopes

Mercer moved to Fayetteville from Virginia in the 1980s to take a job with The Fayetteville Observer, according to an April 2021 story for CityView by Catherine Pritchard, a colleague of Mercer’s at the newspaper. He bought property near Hope Mills with the idea of creating a garden.

His first plantings included 2,000 crocuses and 100 President canna lilies that he brought with him from Virginia. The following spring, he discovered that voles had eaten the plants’ roots, according to the story.

So Mercer turned his focus to daylilies, a perennial that had yielded a remarkable number of variations that breeders had achieved in just a few decades, Pritchard wrote.

The garden grew to be what Mercer said was 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, Pritchard wrote.

By 2021, there were more than 45,000 named varieties of daylilies, including nearly 300 bred by Mercer. They come in a range of colors, including white, yellow, orange, pink, and red.

Mercer named several flowers for his wife, including Awesome Maureen and Maureen’s Rainbow. Many are named for people he worked with at The Fayetteville Observer. He once named a flower for a stranger who called him and begged him for the honor. She never contacted him again, according to Pritchard’s story.

Mercer also grew other plants, including camellias, magnolias and azaleas.

In 1989, he was one of the key founders of Cape Fear Botanical Garden, along with Martha Duell and Bruce Williams. Over time, their vision turned a one-time city park into a 70-acre botanical jewel that is a magnet for visitors and gatherings, the story said.

Content to ‘mosey along’

In a Facebook group of former Fayetteville Observer employees, former colleagues remembered Mercer as a kind, easygoing and passionate man and expressed sadness at his death.

“He had been on my mind recently,” wrote Paige Barefoot. “I am heartbroken to hear this. His encouragement and support always meant so much to me. His smile and positivity always lit up the newsroom.”

Former Observer columnist and reporter Rodger Mullen had an obvious bond with Mercer.

“Roger and I used to joke about the similarity of our names,” Mullen said. “Occasionally, when he was doing his garden column, a reader would send me a plant and ask me to identify it. I would say, ‘Wrong Roger!” and hand it to the ‘real’ Roger.”

Thomas Pope, former Observer sports editor and NASCAR reporter, recalled a visit to Mercers’ Garden.

“Margaret and I went out there a couple of summers ago for his daylily sale. We bought 10, and he gave us another two or three,” Pope wrote. “We watch out the kitchen every day this time of year to see what sort of beauty is going to pop open.”

Juanita Wilson worked with Mercer on the Observer's copy desk.

“I remember Roger as a bit of a free spirit,” wrote Wilson. “On the copy desk, we tended to be hyper-focused to manage the constant chaos and get the paper out on time. I don’t think Roger bought into that mindset. He’d often seem to mosey along and not take things too seriously. He never missed a deadline, though — as far as I can remember.”

Chick Jacobs, a longtime Observer writer and meteorologist, remembered Mercer's optimism.

“Roger was one of the few people I’ve known who never seemed down, who always had time for a question — newspaper or garden. I don’t know how many times I’d be out talking with folks for a story and they’d say, ‘Say hi to Roger for me!’ I swear he knew everyone.”

‘Good daylilies’

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 told Pritchard.

He was born on Dec. 1, 1946, and graduated from Davidson College in 1969.

Mercer served in the Army as an infantry officer in Vietnam. He played saxophone in a 1960s pop band that had two Top 10 hits. Locally, he played the sax with rock band Almost Tomorrow, named after one of his daylilies, Pritchard wrote.

But one plant remains his primary passion.

“I just want to make good daylilies,” he told Pritchard.

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Contact editor Bobby Parker at editor@cityviewnc.com.

Fayetteville, Roger Mercer, gardening, newspaper, writer, Mercers' Garden, daylilies