Armed with tiny paintbrushes tipped with pollen, an elite cadre of skilled Dutch hybridizers is reinventing the lily. Their new interspecific hybrids have stunned and delighted the cut flower trade, caught the eager eye of floral designers, and inspired awe among cut flower lovers and gardeners. If all you know of lilies stops and starts with ‘Stargazer’, you’re in for a treat.
Using a combination of old-world skill and cutting edge technology, these horticultural wizards are combining the most successful new lily varieties of the last half century to create an alphabet soup of new lily types which are now hurtling onto the international lily market at a mind-boggling pace.
The new lilies include types not even imagined 20 years ago. They are divided into groups, each named with the initials of its parentage. Among the newest groups of lilies for both the cut flower trade and garden are:
• OT hybrids which marry the shape and fragrance of Oriental hybrids with the red-yellow-orange color range and vigor of Trumpet lilies. These hybrids have larger new Oriental-looking flowers in a full range of colors, while achieving impressive heat tolerance in the garden (something the original Oriental hybrids never had) thus dramatically expanding the climate ranges where Oriental-looking lilies can be grown;
• LO hybrids which meld the color of Oriental lilies with the elegant elongated flower shape of Longiflorum lilies, while gaining lovely new scents all their own that are “just right, like Goldilocks” (not too faint, not too strong);
• and OA hybrids, a cross between hybrid Orientals with hybrid Asiatic lilies that achieves larger flowers with Asiatic color influences on upward facing flowers without fragrance.
A World of Collegial But Competitive Floral Intrigue
Only 12 Dutch lily hybridizers work at the highest levels today. They are collegial and share information and ideas, but they are also secretive, working in small teams for different breeding houses. The search for new flower varieties is a quest, often solitary, single-minded pursuit that requires skill, patience and passion. In a May 2011 interview, one of these masters, Arie Peterse, a December 2010 recipient of the Dixpenning (Dix medal), the ultimate hybridizing honor awarded by the Royal General Bulb Growers Association (KAVB) in Hillegom, the Netherlands, shared his thoughts on the new world of lilies.
“I’ve heard this called the new golden age of Dutch lily hybridizing but, to us, it’s just what we do every day,” said Peterse, one of four breeders at the Dutch lily breeding house, Gebr. Vletter & Den Haan, Rijnsburg, the Netherlands, www.lilybreeding.com. “To be a hybridizer, first you must be mad about plants. It’s a thrill to create new flowers, there’s mystery, excitement. But most of all it’s fun!” Hybridizing is the process of crossing the pollen of different parent flowers to create new types. Birds and bees are nature’s hybridizers. For humans, hybridizing is an ancient skill, still fueled by artistic vision, scientific knowledge, commercial recall and, today, just a vital dash of high technology.
The last great golden age in lily hybridizing was more than seventy years ago when famed Dutch-born breeder Jan de Graaff of Oregon Bulb Farms in Gresham, OR began introducing his “Mid Century Hybrids.” These beautifully colorful, easy-to-grow hybrids dominated the market for decades.
De Graaff was a pioneer of modern breeding techniques, but he would be bowled over by the boost technology is giving breeding today. Dutch hybridizers have devised new techniques that allow them to crossbreed interspecific hybrids, essentially crossbreeding hybrids of unrelated, and normally incompatible, species of the same genus. In the past, the offspring of such crosses were impossible as, at their youngest stages, the seeds were unable to store the nutritional energy needed to thrive. Today, lily hybridizers step into the laboratory where they can manually provide nutrition to the young seeds at the petri dish stage, thereby rescuing those that might otherwise fail. Once an appealing new variety is established, it is propagated like any other.
The result is new crosses between different types of lilies to create entirely new lily lines with desirable traits. For example, in OT hybrids, the cross between Orientals (O) and Trumpets (T), not only offers new color ranges and fragrance, but the hybrids enjoy incredible substance, vigor, and larger flowers. Hybridizing Breakthroughs Change the Game
Arie Peterse was drawn to OT hybrids early on. His Lilium ‘Robina’ is the most famous. Its intense purplish-rose color reminiscent of crushed berries was a breakthrough in Oriental-looking flowers. It caused a sensation in the cut lily trade and had the added feature of color-holding heat resistance in the garden. Then there were its buds!
With ‘Robina’ Peterse introduced the attribute of tightly closed buds that were fully colored on the outside to match the flower’s coloration when open. That bud’s color was vivid and could hold for up to a week prior to the flower opening. Suddenly, the look of lily buds soared in importance. Plump, elongated and beautiful, the buds now also revealed the full true flower color. It was a game changer. ‘Robina’ was ahead of its time when it burst onto the market in 2004, admits Peterse. “Everyone wanted that cool, colorful bud. Now this look is seen in many new introductions, though it took my hybridizing competitors six years to emulate the look,” he adds.
In sheer numbers, Asiatics and Orientals continue to account for most lilies found at market in North America. But Peterse believes that this will change as first floral designers and then consumers discover the possibilities of the new hybrids. Different flower shapes, combinations of color, softer scents and other attributes will be too tempting to resist.
While he believes there will be demand for older types, especially Orientals, well into the future, he feels sure that the new varieties will dominate. Just as the Longiflorum Asiatic (LA) hybrids, first introduced in 1992, have gained incredible popularity, he sees the same trajectory for the OT hybrids, also known as Orienpets, and the newest kid on the block, the Longiflorum Oriental (LO).
As for the future, the scientists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands are redefining ambition with their attempts to create the new LAOT hybrid. This flower will be a four way cross between all flower lily classics, the Longiflorum, Asiatic, Oriental and Trumpet. For the new golden age of lilies, the sky is the limit, and flower lovers everywhere the beneficiaries.