The Ultimate Experience for Lilium Growers

The following comments relate specifically to liliums. However, the principles involved may be applied to any genus.

Having acquired your lilies and established them in your garden you can now look forward to appreciating them over coming years.  There are about 100 different and diverse species of lilium (depending on which authority you choose to accept), a range of varieties of many of the species, and tens of thousands of registered hybrids.  The latter are new lilies which have been selected from crosses between two or more different lilies by someone who considered that they had achieved some different and worthwhile characteristic which, after growing on for a few years to establish their resistance to disease and general hardiness for garden cultivation, justified the effort of registration with the International Lily Registrar so that lily growers all over the world would then know what it is and where it came from.  

This may seem like much ado about nothing, but it is the basis of the process which has given us most of the best lilies we grow today, and will continue to deliver new and interesting lilies into the future. 

There are probably few, if any, other plants that have seen such dramatic development as the lily.  Only a generation ago, all most of us ever knew were Tiger Lilies (Lilium lancifolium), Christmas Lilies (L. candidum), or, if they were fairly adventurous, then maybe the Pink Tiger (L. speciosum) or the Golden Ray (L. auratum).  Over recent years, we have seen the advent of a huge and diverse range of lilies of superb quality and beauty.   Look at almost any major world event seen on TV and you will see decorations featuring lilies.

Producing your own new lilies is probably one of the most enjoyable interests you can have, and it can all be achieved in the comfort of your own garden, at your own convenience.  When it comes to hybridizing (plant breeding), lilies have two significant advantages over most plants.  Firstly, they have large flowers.  This makes for easy access to the necessary plant parts – no need for microscopes or other complex equipment.  Secondly, they grow readily, and quickly from seed.  This means that you can see a flower from your efforts within two or three years, depending on the type of lily you seek.  Many flowering plants take three or four times this long.   A great bonus with lilies is that their relatively recent development ensures that there are still many potentially different lilies to be developed.

There are many reasons for breeding new lilies.  In some cases, we seek a new colour, pattern, or shape of flower.  Others look for the size or shape of the inflorescence (how the flowers are arranged on the stem).  Resistance to pests or disease, or to climatic influences (snow, ice, or extreme heat) are also prized.  Alternatively, you may be seeking something similar to existing lilies, but able to flower at another time of year in order to extend your season.  The only important thing is that it achieves a worthwhile purpose.

The procedures involved are really quite simple.  What has to happen, is that we take pollen from the anther of one plant, and place it on the stigma of another.   The following diagram shows the parts of a typical lily flower.  Most of these are of little consequence, but what you need to know is that the pollen is found on the six anthers, and that it is placed on the stigma which is usually a single object protruding from the centre of the flower and often curving upwards.

Pollen is frequently of a strong colour and tends to stain anything it contacts.  Never try to rub off fresh pollen.  Where possible, allow it to cure in the sun for a while, after which it will come of quite readily.  It is also most readily flicked off with a small brush from one side.  Avoid making the pollen damp.  In transferring pollen between plants, a small brush may be used, or a pair of small tweezers.  The pollen must also be suitably matured before use.  This may mean waiting for a day or so after the flower opens.  When the pollen rubs off readily it is ready for use.

Similarly, the stigma must be ready to receive the pollen.  This also commonly takes a day or so after the flower opens.  The stigma becomes coated in a sticky fluid when it is ready, which will cause the pollen to adhere readily.

Of course, if we simply transfer the pollen, then we run the risk that an insect, or even wind or gravity, could transfer other pollen to the same stigma, which may fertilise the ovary ahead of the pollen you desire to use.  This could even be from the anthers of the same flower.  To ensure that we get what we are seeking, it is necessary to take a few simple precautions.  Firstly, select a flower bud which is about to open.  Gently force the bud open.  Take a small piece of aluminium foil (approx. 50 – 80mm square), and roll it around the end of a pencil, folding over to form a blank on one end.  Place this over the stigma, giving it a squeeze just behind the swollen tip of the stigma, so that it doesn’t blow off readily.  Remove the anthers from the flower.  These can be later used to pollinate another plant.   Allow a couple of days for the stigma (or the pollen) to ripen.  When ready (check that the stigma is sticky), place the desired pollen on the stigma.  Replace the foil cap over the stigma to ensure protection for a further day or so.  This simple method ensures that only the desired pollen fertilises the target flower.  Any method which does not ensure this result will be “open-pollinated” and could produce anything.

Regardless of what you are seeking, there are certain rules which nature appears to impose on those who seek to intervene.  Not every cross you make will be successful.  The closer the relationship between the two lilies, the greater the chance of success.  Generally, if you cross an Asiatic Hybrid with another Asiatic Hybrid, then your chance of success is quite good.  If you try to cross it with a Trumpet or Oriental Hybrid, or a similar species, then success is most unlikely short of laboratory intervention.  There are also certain rules that apply in relation to polyploid lilies, and there are some established probabilities when combining certain colours or other factors, but that is another story.  Try the basics first – then seek out more information.

When your seed pod ripens, keep a close watch as it begins to dry.  When the end of the capsule begins to split, it is ready to harvest.  If you are afraid that you might miss the right time and lose all your seed to the wind, you could secure a paper bag (or a piece of stocking) over the pod, so that the air can circulate without losing your seed.  Not everything that is in the pod will be viable seed.  Some will probably be chaff.  This is of a similar size and shape, but has nothing in it.  It is mostly much thinner, and usually fairly transparent.  This should be discarded, but if in doubt, sow everything – especially from a more unusual cross.

From here the real test begins.  Grow the seed on to flowering.  Discard any obviously reject specimens each year.  When you have grown it to full maturity for several seasons, then you are in a position to select that rare lily, from many thousands of seedlings, which might be worthy of registration and broader release.   Like all the really good things in life, they are few and far between, but when it happens you will never have to wonder whether it was all worthwhile.

Good Luck !!!