Sunday, July 17, 2011

Asiatic Lily

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid tea roses, Russian sage, buddleia, trumpet creeper, Japanese honeysuckle, silver lace vine, red yucca, hollyhock, datura, sweet pea, purple phlox, cultivated sunflowers, Shasta daisy, purple coneflower, zinnia, squash, alfalfa; corn tasseling, tomatoes visible; bleached leaves on catalpas having problems.

Beyond the walls and fences: Apache plume, fernleaf and leatherleaf globemallows, cheese mallow, scarlet bee blossom, white and yellow evening primroses, velvetweed, whorled milkweed, bindweed, stickleaf, purple mat flower, goat’s head, white sweet clover, buffalo gourd, silver leaf nightshade, Queen Anne’s lace, amaranth, western goat’s beard, Hopi tea, spiny lettuce, horseweed, paper flower, golden hairy and strap-leaf spine asters, dandelion, Santa Fe thistle.

In my yard, looking east: Winecup mallow, sidalcea, baby’s breath, Maltese cross, bouncing Bess, large-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, Shirley poppies; buds on Autumn Joy sedum.

Looking south: Floribunda and rugosa roses, Illinois bundle flower, reseeded morning glories.

Looking west: Caryopteris, lilies, ladybells, Goodness Grows speedwell, blue flax, catmints, calamintha, flowering spurge, sea lavender, white mullein, Mönch aster.

Looking north: Golden spur columbine, Hartweig evening primrose, Mexican hat, Moonshine and Parker’s Gold yarrows, chocolate flower, blanket flower, anthemis, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, moss rose, nicotiana, snapdragon, tomato, pepper.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird, other small birds, hummingbird moth, small bees, hornets, cricket, harvester and small black ants.

Weather: A few minutes of rain last Sunday was not enough; afternoon humidity low since; it gets harder every evening to replace the water that’s been lost in the day; 15:36 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The plants we value most tend to be those that made the great leap from species to domestication so long ago their ancestors can only be guessed.

Despite their many symbolic uses, lilies have only been hybridized since new varieties were imported from Asia some 170 years ago. For the first time we can see how botanical innovation occurs and how quickly, when conditions are right.

The Japanese began experimenting with closely related forms of Lilium maculatum in the middle 1600's. The descendants of their highly selected cultivars were among the plants Philip von Siebold began sending to Holland in 1830.

They arrived at a time when Europeans were already experimenting with crosses between newly introduced species and their familiar ones. Henry Groom, whose observations on geraniums were read by Charles Darwin, began breeding the new maculatum varieties with the European bulbiferum to produce what were called Lilium hollandicum hybrids.

The next generation of nurserymen continued working with hollandicum lilies to produce Sappho, a soft orange, slightly shorter lily, and Alice Wilson, a lemon yellow dwarf. According to Brain Porter, both appeared in 1877. While each remained popular for years, the commercial stock became infected.

Following the recognition of Gregor Mendel’s work, experimentation became more deliberate as academic professionals began work. Isabella Preston was crossing maculatum with a subspecies of davidii in the 1920's. A few years later, George Slater was experimenting with Alice Wilson, while Foreman McLean was mixing tigrinum with maculatum and the maculatum-bulbiferum hybrids.

Soon their discoveries and techniques moved back to the shops of commercial growers. Jan de Graaff, heir to a family of bulb traders, moved to Oregon from Leyden in 1934 where he began taking bulbs from other breeders and making his own crosses, especially between the child of a tigrinum-Sappho cross called Umtig 8 and Alice Wilson. In 1941 he released the coral orange Enchantment, with upward facing flowers on plants that were disease free and vigorous enough to survive the American climate.

Others continued his experiments with lily cultivars and closely related species to produce two distinct groups of bulbs, Asiatic lilies that followed from Enchantment and Oriental lilies. More recently, botanists have been using new techniques to try to cross the natural barriers each group developed against exogamy.

Once the Asiatics were introduced into the Netherlands in 1960, they were seen as potential cut flowers because they weren’t susceptible to the ethylene that escapes ripening produce and the upward thrust of the flower clusters fit the cellophane sleeves used by sellers. They also were relatively inexpensive to grow, had no fragrance to pervade crowded rooms, and some released no pollen to soil table cloths.

What’s important to me isn’t that I can buy a few stems of Asiatic lilies in the local grocery store, but that I can grow them in my yard. Most of the forebears of Asiatic lilies tolerate a wide range of soils and that trait has been retained.

In the fall of 1998, I bought several lily varieties. The Asiatic white Avalanche have bloomed every year, usually with clusters atop stems that get about two feet high. I can’t tell if they’ve actually expanded underground, but they do produce more stems and have lived longer than the ten years Schulte’s Greenhouse suggests I could have expected “under ideal conditions.”

This summer another plant failed to appear and I thought I would add more Avalanche bulbs, rather than experiment. Alas, Van Engelen stopped carrying them in 2000, and doesn’t even carry any reasonably tall white alternatives. Indeed, they are offering fewer varieties now than they did in 1998.

I don’t know if that’s a consequence of changing tastes, market saturation, or bankers who are less willing to lend money to breeders and importers. The first two are prods that can influence the direction of new experiments, but the last can sap the entrepreneurial spirit and kill the spark of innovation that only appears sporadically.

Notes: Maculatum is now known as Lilium pennsylvanicum; it’s also been called dauricum, elegans and wilsonii. Tigrinum is now called Lilium lancifolium.

Anderson, Susan Heller. “Jan de Graaff, Tamer of the Wild Lily, Dies at 86,” The New York Times, 9 August 1989.

Benschop, Maarten, Rina Kamenetsky, Marcel Le Nard, Hiroshi Okubo and August De Hertogh. “The Global Flower Bulb Industry: Production, Utilization, Research,” Horticultural Reviews 36:1-115 :2010.

Darwin, Charles. Letter to Gardener’s Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 14 Sept 1844, on something Groom wrote in the previous issue.

McRae, Edward A. Lilies: A Guide for Growers and Collectors, 1998; McRae apprenticed with Graaff.

Porter, Brian. “A look at Asiatic lilies of the Past 3 Centuries. Are They Still Here?,” on his Old Lily Hybrids and Species website.

Schulte’s Greenhouse and Nursey. “Avalanche Lily,” on-line catalog.

Photograph: Cluster of Avalanche Asiatic lilies, 10 July 2011.

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