Pam Rutledge's backyard garden. (Photo by Julianne Tripp)
By one measure, Pam Rutledge’s garden is small — a scant eighth of an acre off Lauderdale Drive.
Yet by another, her garden is immense — the biggest in Richmond, perhaps. That’s because the daylilies born in Rutledge’s backyard have been adopted by hundreds of gardeners and planted in every corner of the city.
Of course they thrive. That’s what daylilies do. I have a piece of Pam’s garden under my black walnut tree, where few other plants will grow. Every June, her daylilies pop like fireworks, red and yellow and orange. Each bloom lasts a day, no more.
No other flower is both so humble and so spectacular. The orange flowers that brighten highway ditches are daylilies; so are the flashy, ruffled varieties that sell for between $150 and $200 when they’re first introduced. Hybridizers dream of discovering pure white and blue.
In the 1960s, Rutledge’s great-aunt Genera Belle began hybridizing daylilies in Jackson, Miss. Wearing a pressed white dress, white hose and a hat, Genera Belle tended her daylilies and carefully crossed them. As she invented new varieties, she’d mail the seeds to far-flung family as a way of keeping in touch.
Rutledge inherited this obsession and began hybridizing in earnest after she retired from her work as an interior decorator. The process is simple, though painstaking. First, she chooses two daylilies with characteristics she’d like to combine, not just color, but also patterns, ruffled edges and stem height.
She plucks the pollen-covered anther from one flower and places it on the female pistil of another. The pollen travels down the pistil to fertilize the eggs at the bottom. Within a day, after the petals fall, a seedpod begins to swell. Rutledge collects the seeds in the fall, refrigerates them for three weeks and then plants them in labeled trays. The seedlings look like blades of grass. A baby daylily takes two years to bloom. Until the moment the bud opens, there’s no way to predict the results of the cross.
Pam Rutledge tending to daylilies. (Photo by Julianne Tripp)
So Rutledge waits. And waits. “And when you wake up one morning, and you see a flower that has never been seen before by anyone, it’s like Christmas. … You had a little part in creating something in this world that you’ll get to leave behind when you’re gone.”
Rutledge is best known for her Elvis Presley series, a collection of daylilies with names like “Swivel Hips Velvet Lips,” “Shades and Sideburns” and “Elvis’ Yellow Scarf.” A dark-purple flower is called “One Night With Elvis.” “Now let me clear your mind up about that!” Rutledge says, her eyes dancing with mischief. The name refers to the time her mother saw Elvis perform.
Once, her friend Donna Ponce recalls, Rutledge was giving a tour of her garden when “she tripped on a root and went down on her butt, into the middle of this huge, beautiful clump of daylilies.” Rutledge dubbed that variety “Falling and All Shook Up.” Eleven of her Elvis daylilies debuted in the Memphis Botanic Garden this year.
In the early 2000s, she began hosting yearly sales out of her yard, turning strangers into friends as she sent them home with armfuls of plants. Then, in November 2014, Rutledge was diagnosed with a rare form of thyroid cancer. It was already Stage IV. “They didn’t give me a lot of hope,” she says.
Rutledge had surgery that December, then sought treatment at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. In April 2015 something miraculous happened: A new drug became available that was effective for Rutledge’s cancer.
While at MD Anderson, Rutledge saw a building filled with children who had come from all over the world to seek treatment. She decided that when she returned home, she would raise money with her daylilies to help young cancer patients in Richmond. “I’ve had a good life. If you have to take mine down the road, I’d love for some child to have a good life like I’ve had,” she says, her eyes filling.
But during her illness, her garden ran wild. Weeds choked the beds that once were so lovingly tended.
The members of the Richmond Area Daylily Society put on their gardening gloves and got to work, with the help of Leo, Rutledge’s husband of 47 years, family, friends, neighbors and James River Nurseries. More than 400 daylilies were divided and replanted, and the garden was restored. Rutledge held a successful sale June 11, donating the proceeds to the Children’s Hospital Foundation.
Pam Rutledge and volunteers, from left to right: Georgia Keene, Bonnie Edwards (daughter), Leo Rutledge (husband), Pam Rutledge, Donna Ponce, Connie George, Katherine Nicol, Pam George. (Photo by Julianne Tripp)
Her fight isn’t over. Three months ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thyroid surgery has left a delicate white scar on her throat. Her ready laugh has become a hoarse chuckle, her voice nearly a whisper.
Pam Rutledge (photo by Julianne Tripp)
Once a daylily is established, it can live pretty much forever. “If your husband mows it down, it’ll come back,” Rutledge says with a laugh. “They don’t know when to quit growing.”
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A hello from Melissa: For 15 years I've been a freelancer and full-time reporter for Virginia publications including Style Weekly and The Virginian-Pilot. I live in Lakeside with my family, where I spend most evenings weeding the vegetable garden and humming Dolly Parton songs. I'm currently working on my third first novel.
Sunday Story contributor Melissa Scott Sinclair. (Photo by Larissa Tyler)