OBSESSION, PASSION, ADDICTION - What is it about lilies that captivates people?

by Lynnette Westfall

Once I planted a lone lily bulb. That lily bulb grew the most remarkable flowers I had ever seen, despite the fact that I moved it repeatedly in the first 3 years of growth - even while actively growing in midsummer I moved it to different spots in my garden, as I was never quite satisfied with where it sat. In fact, I moved everything I planted those first 3 years, and wondered why nothing seemed to thrive or grow in size, except the lily that is. Why did I keep moving things?  I had no clue what I was doing to tell you the truth!  It was my first flower garden on the property we just purchased, where we still reside today.

When the first lily bloom opened, I was fascinated. The next year that bulb shot out 2 stems and I was in love, the third year...well, by then I was hooked! Since that time 20 years ago, it can be called nothing less than an addiction. That first lily bulb I purchased turned out to be one of the finest I could have chosen, for it had already endured many years as a great garden lily around the world and had been used extensively in numerous early breeding programs because of its many outstanding qualities. That one bulb has been the source of hundreds of lily bulbs, which I have since grown and sold over the years, and is named Connecticut King.  If I had not picked up that one bulb and planted it, I may not have become so enthralled with lilies that I was determined to make a business out of them, and a business doing what I love no less!

I am most pleased to have learned over time that I am not the only one afflicted with this innocent addiction (would my husband call it innocent if he knew I once paid $50.00 for a single bulb, probably not!), in fact it seems many men and women are entranced by the beauty and grace of lilies. Fred Fellner and Alex Burnett, both well-known lily breeders from Alberta, would have to consider themselves hooked as well.

When asked what got him started in growing and hybridizing lilies, Fred replied that farming wasn't so good in the late 60's and he was looking for alternative crops to grow. First he experimented with perennials, and for various reasons gave it up. He saw lilies bred by folks such as Ed Robinson and Robert Simonet, and thought the lilies they produced were nicer than many others he'd seen, and decided he'd try his hand at it too. He met other breeders, joined NALS and started corresponding with breeders around the globe.

Alex began breeding in 1985, after visiting Fred's sumptuous lily fields. He said he was ‘infected' immediately. Alex received guidance and encouragement from breeders such as Fred Fellner, Fred Tarlton, and Dick Thomas, also from the North American Lily Society and many of its' publications.

Climate and weather has turned out to be the biggest challenge for Fred and Alex, both agreeable on the fact that they live in a most brutal location to try and grow anything. Both fellows live near the AB/SK border, considered Zone 2 on the Canadian zone map. Lack of snow in winter and drought in summer over many years has changed how they grow and breed lilies, not to mention their goals in hybridizing. Fred is still breeding for hardiness, durability and disease resistance, and says he finds himself getting pickier over time. Although he has retired from actively breeding lilies, Alex says he is still looking for the best, most perfect lily. He has been quoted as saying 'it should be the ultimate goal of every lily breeder to produce the finest lily for the enjoyment of all flower lovers in the world'. He has certainly done his part by sharing with us such fine hybrids as Night Flyer, Contrails, High Flight, and Wing Commander from his breeding program.

Don't waste your time searching for High Flight, magnificent as it may be. Apparently it is very difficult to propagate, in fact I believe Alex's exact words were ‘it is impossible to increase!' and because of this it has never been commercially available.

Fred has been no slouch when it comes to sharing his lilies, with more than 30 registered varieties in the RHS Lily Registry. There are two lilies, which Fred admits some pride in due to their durability; Honey Pink and Sally Jo Ann.  Alex admits he is quite pleased with Contrails, a tall and stately white lily with an inflorescence that any lily lover would appreciate. Both have bred hundreds or thousands more that you and I would find exquisite, but did not live up to their high standards. Amazingly, Fred feels he hasn't accomplished much in breeding all these years. He feels he has done more in way of promoting lilies by sharing his culls (those that did not meet his standards). Alex says advancements in lily breeding over the years are simply amazing, also noting that what we were happy with 20 years ago just doesn't measure up anymore. Concerned with the future of lily breeding, Alex feels more young people need to develop an interest in hybridizing. I say, first we need to get them hooked!

In the end, all these words (obsession, addiction, passion, fascination) come to mind when I need to describe my feelings for lilies.  I am obsessed with collecting as many Canadian bred lilies as I can, in preserving them for future generations, I am proud that such fine men as Fred and Alex will forever be remembered through their lilies too. I am passionate about breeders getting paid for their work, and I am addicted to the fragrance, the shape and form of every lily I have ever met!  No, I have never met one that I didn't like, but like Alex and Fred, I find myself getting pickier as the years go by, but this is due to necessity rather than anything else. I simply don't have the space to keep them all, so I choose to focus on preserving our Canadian bred lilies in hopes that future generations will also sport such a lovely, harmless obsession, passion or addiction!

Thanks for reading, have yourself a happy go lucky day today!

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