A few years ago, I visited my friend, Judy Ann’s, garden. It was early evening in late June, and the air was filled with the sound of tree frogs singing a chorus. At the back of the border standing tall in the fading sunlight, I saw my first Reckamp daylily. The color was that of a ripe tangerine or an orange dreamsicle, and although the flower was a simple trumpet shape, it glowed as if lit from within.
Mouth open, I pointed, and Judy Ann smiled.
“Ah, the Reckamp glow,” she said, “Brother Reckamp created daylilies that look like no other.”
Judy Ann is a daylily hybridizer and an avid collector of Reckamp’s work. In her garden, she showed me colors and toothy edges which were not only beautiful, but also before their time. I, soon, became a fan of his flowers, but I was even more intrigued by the man himself. Why would a monk be a daylily hybridizer?
Roy Klehm, a peony and daylily hybridizer, and owner of Klehm’s Song Sparrow Nursery, graciously spoke to me of his lifelong friend. Klehm said Reckamp bought Dutch Elm trees from Klehm’s grandfather. The elms perished long ago from Dutch Elm disease, but Reckamp maintained friendships with four generations of the Klehm family.
Born and raised on a farm northwest of St. Louis, Brother Reckamp lived his entire religious life in Techny, Illinois, as a brother of The Society of the Divine Word. When he arrived at the farm in 1927, he and the other initiates were asked who knew about farming. He raised his hand, and he was chosen to work on what was then a dairy and beef operation which helped the monks be more self sufficient.
Later, the brothers started a market garden business to serve Chicago. Reckamp began hybridizing iris. However, since iris bloomed during the nursery’s busiest time of the year, his two friends, Orville Fay and Dr. Robert Griesbach, encouraged him to try daylilies, which bloomed later. Reckamp’s first daylilies were introduced by Steve Moldovan, another hybridizer, and Klehm took over introducing them after 1970.
Most of Reckamp’s daylilies have religious names, which Klehm said often came out of the Lutheran hymnal. Four names came from the hymn, “Silent Night.” Klehm laughed when I said their partnership was truly ecumenical.
“Warm days really bring out the pink in Reckamp’s daylilies,” Klehm said, “He wanted to create varieties that glowed in the evening light.”
Every year, Reckamp encouraged other farmers in the area to dump leaf mold into his hybridizing fields, and he would rototill six inches of that leaf mold into his soil.
“He wanted his plants to have garden value,” said Klehm, “He loved the joy his plants brought to people.”
Good plant habit meant Reckamp wanted daylilies which were more than a pretty face. He culled thousands that didn’t meet up to his standards. They needed to be long flowering cultivars with high bud counts, trouble free foliage and good winter dormancy. All Reckamp daylilies are dormant cultivars which means they die all the way to the ground in winter. This makes them very cold hardy. In my garden, they also hold up well in the heat. I planted most in the shade to take advantage of their glowing colors. They light up the shady spaces in the garden quite well.
Nearly every variety I have blooms late, which helps me extend daylily season a little longer. An exception to this is this unknown sold to me as ‘Mission Madonna’ shown blooming polytepal. Most of Reckamp’s later introductions had toothy or ruffled edges. For their time period, these were unique qualities only now being seen in the mainstream of daylily hybridizing.
The Victory Garden’s, Jim Wilson, profiled Reckamp in Masters of the Victory Garden. In the book, Wilson shows how the daylily eventually came to America. I enjoyed reading about Wilson meeting Reckamp who was going strong in 1982. He also explains the revolution of dayliles in the 1940s when Dr. Griesbach began breeding tetraploid daylilies (diploid daylily seeds are treated with colchicine to double their chromosomes.) Today, hybridizers breed both diploid and tetraploid daylilies; separately of course. You can’t breed a dip to a tet. If you are interested, Wilson gives a good history of the process. Dr. Griesbach finally converted an important cultivar to tetraploid. The plant, ‘Crestwood Ann’, cost $200.00. Reckamp’s superiors let him purchase one plant to begin working in tetraploid daylilies.
According to Wilson, Reckamp noticed his cultivars began to have a “‘signature’– a combination of wide petals and highly visible sepals.” His later work incorporated the ruffled and toothy edges so desired by later hybridizers.
Although Reckamp became a hybridizer, he still kept up with his nursery duties, and his hybrids began to sell. He returned all the money to the Society which had encouraged him in his efforts. He fell in love with daylilies as a hobby and, with tremendous effort, created great garden plants. His most famous cultivar, ‘Angel’s Smile’, is still in demand today.