April 07, 2020

Lily for Love> New Jersey horticulturist names refined hybrid for deceased family friend from Maine

Colton Strout celebrated his 5th birthday recently. He blew out all the candles on the ice cream cake. He was delighted with the truck, airplane and other gifts. But one present especially caught his eye.

Tearing open the blue wrapping paper, Colton discovered a picture of his late mother perched on a rock at Seawall on Mount Desert Island. Little and Great Duck islands loomed in the distance. He also found a photo of a day lily, with creamy petals and a fine purple line running along the ruffled edges.

The newly created flower has been named Hemerocallis “Barbara Keen-Strout” in memory of the boy’s mother. The name for the latest botanical creation of Darrel Apps, a world-renowned cultivator of day lilies in New Jersey, was accepted in October by the American Hemerocallis Society.

Apps, former head of the education department at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., could not have chosen a more fitting tribute to Barbara Strout, whose childhood was spent surrounded by extraordinary flowers. The gesture also was a testament to his friendship with the late woman’s father with whom he worked for three decades.

An East Sullivan resident, Dick Keen worked for 34 years at Longwood Gardens before retiring to Maine in 1989. The horticulturist and his wife, Betty, were thrilled to learn the day lily had been named for their daughter.

“Darrel called us up and said, `I’ve got a question for you. Could we name a plant for Barbara?”‘ Keen said recently, showing a snapshot of the newly created day lily in bloom. “Betty and I were really proud.”

Since retiring to Maine, Keen has worked several days a week as a consultant at Thuya Garden in Northeast Harbor. He plans to open his own day lily nursery at his Sullivan home next spring. He brought with him “Hope Diamond,” “Elizabeth Yance,” “Bertie Ferris” and many other varieties of hemerocallis when he moved from Pennsylvania.

Day lilies may be Keen’s current passion, but orchids first inspired him to become a horticulturist in 1956. To this day, he recalls the sea of exotic flowers of every imaginable hue that greeted his eye in greenhouses at Rutgers University.

At the time, he had a summer job working at Longwood, but was studying agronomy at the University of Delaware in preparation for running his family’s poultry and vegetable farm.

At Longwood, Keen initially was assigned to the chrysanthemum house, where he was put to work potting, pinching and staking flowers and performing other tasks. He later transferred to the orchid house.

“I walked in there and said this is it,” recalls Keen, who promptly changed his major to horticulture.

Keen never budged from Longwood. He later was put in charge of the orchid collection at the famous gardens created by DuPont Chemical Corp. heir, Pierre S. du Pont, on his estate.

“I was the first fellow in the Keen family to say I was not going to work for the DuPont company,” the horticulturist says, chuckling, noting his father worked as a chemist at DuPont.

While most of his tenure at Longwood was devoted to orchids, Keen spent his last 14 years at the gardens as the in-house photographer. He worked closely with Apps in the Longwood education department.

Outside Longwood, Apps had another life as one of the world’s top cultivators of day lilies. He is credited with creating the best-selling hemerocallis “Happy Returns,” a small, lemon-yellow flower; “Pardon Me,” a miniature, cranberry-colored day lily; and “Eleanor Apps,” a purple flower with a violet eye.

“Darrel is a world-famous hybridizer of day lilies,” Keen says. “He was the first person to do tissue cultures of them.”

Besides working at Longwood, and their shared passion for flowers, Apps and Keen have other things in common. They both are professional photographers. Their wives are nurses. Their children played together.

A decade ago, Apps opened his own nursery in southern New Jersey, specializing in day lilies. He grows hundreds of varieties. “Vesuvian Blackout,” a black-violet day lily, is among the new flowers he introduced this year.

Meanwhile, Keen and his wife moved to Maine where they planned to open their own day lily nursery. For years, the couple and their three children had vacationed in this state, often camping in Acadia National Park.

Moving to Maine, Keen brought along two U-Haul trucks filled with plants from his personal garden on the Longwood estate. He has since created perennial beds at his Sullivan home. “Maudiae Magnifica” and other orchids grace the windowsills of his house.

Several years ago, the Keens’ youngest daughter, Barbara Strout, died after suffering a severe asthma attack. Her heart stopped. She was only 31. At the time, she and her husband, Chris, and Colton were living in Franklin.

The Keens’ old friend Apps learned of the tragedy. For several years, he had been painstakingly hybridizing a new day lily. Each year, he further refined the flower, giving it a plum-colored halo in the eye and other features.

One wintry day last February, Apps called his friends in Maine and asked if they’d allow him to name his latest creation after their daughter. Last summer, the Keens ventured down to see the new day lily in bloom. They thought the flower was beautiful and were deeply touched by the gesture.

“He [Darrel] thinks it’s one of the finest things he has ever hybridized,” Keen says.

Apps had known Barbara Keen as a child, but he named the day lily “Barbara Keen-Strout” so the gesture would be meaningful to her son.

When “Barbara Keen-Strout” becomes available commercially in 2000, Keen hopes to carry the fine specimen in his own nursery. Despite his young age, Colton already loves working with his granddad. For sure, the young boy will be lending a hand tending the flowers named after his mom.

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