Michigan farm has 1,000 day lily varieties

BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS

Traverse City Record-Eagle

AP Member Exchange

THOMPSONVILLE, Mich. — The fields are a sea of gold as Di and Don Rau wander among the day lilies at Betsie River Centennial Lily Farm.

“Is Betty Woods in bloom?” calls Di Rau, as Don Rau scans the neat rows for examples of double- bloom varieties.

It’s peak season at the Thompsonville farm, which grows, hybridizes and sells the summer-flowering perennials known for their vibrant blooms — each lasts only one day — distinctive trumpet shape and ease of care.

Yellow is predominant, though the daylilies range in color from white to almost black, with plenty of peach, pink, lavender and burgundy on the spectrum.

“I’m drawn to the richer colors and the darker colors,” said Di Rau, whose idea of gardening is maintenance-free, meaning watering and fertilizing are kept to a minimum. “I like a frilly edge.”

Unlike true lilies, most day lilies are not fragrant, said Don Rau, who recalls one visitor whose face was coated with pollen after sniffing her way through the flowers. But paler varieties are edible, with petals tasting from sweet to lightly peppered lettuce (Di Rau likes to “stuff” the flowers by removing the stamens and spooning chicken salad into the center).

Di Rau’s passion for the flowers started after she planted a day lily in her now 2-acre garden, then was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent nine months of treatment, including chemotherapy.

“When all was said and done, it was the only flower that survived,” she told the Traverse City Record-Eagle . “I take everything as a sign.”

Cancer-free, she took a master class at West Shore Community College to learn more about the flowers, followed by an advanced master class through Michigan State University to learn how to hybridize them.

She started planting day lilies commercially in 2001 and soon learned that they thrived on the farm’s loamless “dirty sand” — soil she said old-timers call “blow sand.”

Now she grows 1,000 varieties of standard, “spider” and “UFO” day lilies with names like Jolly Red Giant, Raspberry Ripple Cupcake, Scatterbrain and Penny’s Worth.

Their blooms are single and double, ruffled and straight-edged, giant and miniature.

She even hybridized and registered 39 lilies, naming them after her grandchildren (Betsie River Shelby, Libby and Reese), a late friend (Betsie River Leslie K.), a Manistee centenarian (Betsie River Marian) and a popular band (Betsie River Air Supply).

“You have surprises,” she said, noting three distinctly different lilies she hybridized that came from the same parent flowers and the same seed pod. “You plan, you hybridize, you know your characteristics and sometimes this happens.”

Di Rau runs the business with the help of a field manager — her former boss at Graceland Fruit — and Don Rau, a former steel salesman who took up metal sculpting at age 60 and now sells his work at art galleries, the farm studio and on commission.

The couple met on a Valentine’s Day blind date in Grand Rapids and married a month later. In 1990 they moved to the farm, which backs up to the Betsie River.

Their blended family includes three grown sons and several exchange students from around the world, including best-selling Finnish thriller author Antti Tuomainen.

Visitors to the farm — originally homesteaded by Di Rau’s great-grandfather in 1873 — are greeted by dog Lily and “the three nuts:” calico cats Almond, Pistachio and Peanut.

After introductions, they can wander the three acres of commercial fields with a catalog, jot down their favorite varieties and present their wish list to the couple for digging while they wait.

Then they can stroll the property studded with Don Rau’s metal and metal-and-glass sculpture — garden gates and arbors, giant spectacled ants, cacti lit by glass bottles — or browse the farm studio, where the couple’s work — Don Rau’s sculpture and garden bells made from recycled scuba and oxygen tanks, and Di Rau’s photography, fused glass panels and jewelry, and note cards made from pounded plant pigment — are for sale. Or they can relax in the shade of the corn crib Don Rau moved to the property and planted with hops and grapes the couple make into grape juice.

“We have a tremendous amount of customers from out of state,” said Di Rau, noting that many learn about the farm from brochures displayed at nearby Crystal Mountain Resort. “Crystal Mountain has been my blessing.”