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Heritage Lilies

By: Doreen Sage


When growing any plant material, it is always of interest to know the history of the plant. This helps the gardener to better understand the wants and needs for successful growing.

You are now "into" growing and enjoying lilies, but you may not be totally aware of the history of these bulbs.

Lilies are native to Asia, Europe and North America. Wild lilies grow as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as the Philippine Islands and southern India.

The recorded history of lily cultivation is long. Lilium candidum has been grown since Egyptian Pharaohs, carried to Europe, England and then on to the New World, being used even as medicine and food. Not as widely grown by early European gardeners was L. chalcedonicium, described in 1629 as the "red martagon of Constantinople" The discovery of North America let to the introduction of the eastern Lilium canadense and L. superbum into English and French gardens in the 17th century. Early traders and explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries found that Japanese gardeners were already hybridizing, producing Lilium x elegans and L. x thunberganum, L. auratum, L. japonicum, L. rubellum, and L. speciosum. These were followed by the trumpet lilies of the Chinese Mountains. Early commercial distribution of lilies in the West was by W. A. Constable’s firm (England). Jan de Graaff was another forerunner of commercial acceptance in the U.S. in the 1950's.

Gardeners did regard lilies as hard to grow, mainly because it took too long to transport bulbs and they did not survive the trip. Today, bulbs are transported under controlled conditions, shipped rapidly, carefully packed with good protection from dehydration and bruising. Gardeners today also do not have to deal with the temperamental growing needs of the wild ancestors of today’s hybrids. These hybrids which we all grow so easily today are the results of the work of many lily breeders around the world. In Canada, many lily growers hybridize. Some have made outstanding contributions to the lily world.

C. T. Patterson (1892-1961), a professor and head of Horticulture, U. of SK He crossed Lilium davidi var. willmottiae and L. cernuum, resulting with such bulbs as:  Apricot Glow, Burnished Rose, Edith Cecilia, Lemon Queen, Orchid Queen, Rose Dawn, White Gold, White Princess. 

D. J. Porter (1901–2000) of Honeywood Nursery Parkside, SK introduced Earlibird, Pink Champagne, Redland, Red Carpet.

Isabella Preston (1881–1965) crossed Lilium sargentiea with L. regale, producing ‘George C. Creelman’; many of today's trumpets are descendants. She also introduced the Stenographers Series, her most successful introductions.

Charles Robinson (1908-1996) did much hybridizing. L. candidium var. salonikae and L. monadelphium resulting in ‘June Fragrance’, Fiery Sunset is his best known.

Dr. Frank Skinner (1882–1967), Dropmore, MB, introduced Black Prince, Glacier Junita (martagons), Dunkirk, Lemon Lady, Maxwill. (see article - page 2).

James C. Taylor (1898-1976) introduced fascinating hybrids: Cardinal (Lilium lancifolium x L. amabile), Goldcrest (Asiatic hybrid x L. pumilum ‘Golden Gleam’), Meadowlark (involving lilies of Preston's Stenographer Series), Redstart, Skylark, Waxwing.

These early hybrids, Asiatic, martagon, Oriental, all were part of the continuing work and are the ancestors of today's bulbs. Many of these "heritage" bulbs are still grown and many are still available in the bulb catalogues. They are of special interest of any gardener who would like to start a crossing of pollen and try and produce a new bulb.