Sunday, January 20, 2008

About Mike Huben

I’m a modest man (indeed, I’m proud of my humility), so I’m not sure I like this idea of writing about the glory that is me. It used to be that we’d have one member write about another to prevent omphaloskeptic (navel-gazing), self-indulgent bragging that nobody else would be interested in. But in my case, how could that be a problem? After all, for me, there is no I in ego.

I’ve always been fascinated by flowers. My mother has a picture of me (at age 2) staring intently at a patch of petunias. I bought my first rosebush at age 6. At age 10, I saved my allowance for 18 weeks to buy carnivorous plants. At age 16, I made a large garden in my backyard of annuals and dahlias. When I went to college, I worked in the botany department’s garden and greenhouse.

Oh, there have been distractions along the way. I’ve had some other great, lifelong loves.

I’m an entomologist. My father showed me how to catch and pin butterflies at age 6. I developed a stooping posture in my youth from my ever downturned gaze, searching for insects where ever I walked. At Cornell, this passion exploded and I spent my spare time collecting and working in the insect collection. After college, I took two sabbatical years to collect insects in the US and Ecuador. I’ve specialized in an unusual wasp family (no, not the Bush family, ugh) and published 3 papers and two new genera. I’m also something of an expert on mites.

Geekdom came easily to me: first recreational mathematics in high school, and then a 30 year career in computer programming. But after 6 layoffs, changing jobs every year or two, and at least three complete changes in technology, I grew weary of the hitech scramble. My wife led the way: she’d taken the 50% pay cut to change to teaching. So I completed my BS (it only took me 30 years!), enrolled in a masters program, got certified to teach Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics, and now I’m a high-school math teacher at Boston Latin Academy.

As a proud geek, I always disdained physical activity, especially team sports. But somehow I always bicycled, jogged, trampolined, hiked, etc. I started Aikido, a Japanese martial art, 23 years ago. It’s a little like nurturant pro-wrestling: we defend ourselves by throwing people or pinning them in harmless ways. No bellowing, no blood, and even small women can do it. I’m a third degree black belt now, and I teach at 3 dojos. I also have a third degree black belt in Iaido, Japanese quickdraw sword. It’s not nurturant: it’s kill them first, by surprise if possible.

The real reason I started aikido was to meet women. And it worked: I met my wife Peggy at the Aikido dojo, and we fell for each other. We’ve been together 20 years now, and I have a 17 year old daughter, Carol, and a 14 year old son, Robert. The three of them occasionally help out in the garden and both kids have made a few crosses, but they’re not into plants or insects much. All of them like Aikido and math. Not my fault!

But I suppose you wanted to read something about daylilies.

About 20 years ago, I visited the Massachusetts Horticultural Society library and saw some copies of The Daylily Journal. There was a big, gaudy picture of a Salter hybrid on the cover, and my jaw hit the floor. Then I looked inside, saw the prices, and my jaw hit the floor again. I ignored daylilies until about 5 years later, when I came to my first NEDS meeting. Gaudy pictures! I bought a dozen or so at the $3 sale, and enjoyed their bloom. But they weren’t fancy enough, and their bloom period was so short!

The second year, I bought a bunch that were labeled as rebloomers: a longer season at last! But they didn’t rebloom. Even Stella De Oro didn’t rebloom for me for three years. And worse, most of the daylilies increased very slowly for me: Stella De Oro was the rare exception. Thus, I found my calling: to improve northern daylily behavior.

Somewhere around my third year, I bought the daylily of my dreams from Steve Greene: Monica Marie, by Lee Gates. A round, ruffled, pristine white of exceptional beauty. I wanted that, but with the vigor, profuse bloom, and rebloom of Stella De Oro. So in 1995, I made my first cross of Stella De Oro with Monica Marie.

Now, I had a pretty good idea of how to go about breeding plants: I had been a plant breeding major at Cornell. But I sought advice from the local diploid breeders, especially Bob Sobek and Phil Reilly. I also sought advice from the local garden judges on what makes a good daylily; from Mary Collier Fisher, Darlyn Wilkinson, Curt Turner, and numerous others. I sought advice from the scientifically oriented members: Jim Brennan and George Doorakian. And further afield from Darrel Apps and Stephen Kendall, who had very similar goals. Their help has been invaluable: for finding breeding material, for planning my breeding program, for describing what’s hard and what’s easy, for what’s been done in the past, for what’s needed to be done, and choosing the breeding goals wisely.

I knew that it would take two or four generations to get a white northern rebloomer because I’d have to outcross, and some of the characteristics were recessive or required rare combinations of genes. Hardly anything I bred rebloomed, until I got Early And Often. Its increase and rebloom were so spectacular that I introduced it in only 4 years from seed, in 2001.

I’ve continued since then using Early And Often as the base of my breeding program:

After 12 years, 4 generations, and 10,000 seedlings, I now have nearwhite northern rebloomers that rebloom terrifically. They’re not nearly as perfectly formed as Monica Marie, nor do they have all the extraordinary plant characteristics of Stella De Oro. But nobody out there has anything that looks and behaves like my newest introduction, Snowy Stella.

Snowy Stella is just the beginning. I have more nearwhites to introduce, and will continue to improve them.

Along the way to Snowy Stella, I acquired several other breeding goals. The mixed perennial gardens we northerners delight in require daylilies of many statures and flower sizes. I’ve chosen to work in the tall-and-small category, in whites and velvety sunfast reds. I’d like vigorous plants with scapes from 36 inches to 60 inches, a fountain effect. The flower forms could range from mini spiders to trumpets to flat open “butterflies” to strongly recurved and hanging “martagons”. This goal will keep me busy for yet another decade.


Anonymous said...

Are there any late or re-blooming daylilies that are spiders or UFOs that do well in the north?

Mike Huben said...

Jersey Spider, supposedly.