FACETIME- Daylily man: Benzinger bids <i>adieu</i> to perennial affair

Fred Benzinger was turned down for a bank loan to buy the 16 acres in Ruckersville where he's bred and sold daylilies since 1958. Today, if his deal to sell the property gets county approval, Benzinger will pack up a few of his daylilies and move to a gated community off Route 33, laughing all the way to the... bank. And the yellow "Benzinger Daylilies" sign, a fixture fronting the U.S. 29 property, will disappear, along with the farm where he still digs up the flowering perennials for $5 a clump.

Benzinger, 83, can only toss out ballpark numbers when asked how many daylilies he has. "One million? Two, three million? I put out 10,000 a few years ago," he says.

There's one variety that isn't for sale: Kathryn Benzinger, a lavender beauty named for his wife of nearly 57 years. The two met in February 1949 in a University of Maryland horticulture class and married September 1 that same year.

"He was a smart aleck in class," remembers Benzinger's bride. "He knew more than the professor."

Benzinger is known all over the world for his daylilies, which have found homes in New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. 

"I was very fortunate," he reminisces. "I was never turned down by top geneticists when I asked for help." For years he was in a garden club with UVA scientists, but today, he laments, "There's nobody to talk to about science."

Daylilies weren't Benzinger's first love. When he started in plant genetics, he was breeding chrysanthemums. But, "There was not enough interest here," he says. "When you have eight children, you have to think about what works."

Also, in 1948, "stunt," a virus from England, arrived, destroying 95 percent of the chrysanthemum business. The mums of Yoder Brothers, who bred for certain characteristics, survived. "That's why they all look the same today," Benzinger says. "You can't buy the ones I grew 48 years ago."

Not one to hole up in a greenhouse, Benzinger says he likes the people who visit his gardens. "About once a year, I get a person who can't tolerate me," he says. He likes to joke around, and some may confuse his kidding with contrariness. 

Business doesn't seem to be slowing. "Last Saturday was the busiest day I've ever had," he says. And while digging up daylilies in July weather seems draining, even for those younger than 83, that's no problem: "The heat doesn't bother me or my wife," he declares.

After 48 years of growing and breeding daylilies, is Benzinger ever bored?

He seems astonished at the question and relays a warning he received from a geneticist in 1948: "The trouble with plant breeding is it never gets out of your system." 

Fred Benzinger