Lilies can be propagated vegetatively or by seed. When the seed comes from a hybrid plant we all know that there will be considerable variation in the seedlings. The usual statement in a book on perennials goes something like this - "seedlings of hybrids will not come true; seedlings of species on the other hand will be similar to the parents". The operative word here is "similar". Too often it is taken to mean "identical" as though all members of a species constituted a "clone". Rather, they should be thought of as a strain.
This has two important implications for lily growers. The first is, that since many of the lily species have been in cultivation for a relatively short time, a great deal can probably be done in improving their form by selecting as parents from succeeding generations those with the best colour, flower form, number of blooms, improved inflorescence and so on. The original wild "cabbage" species, Brassica oleracea has given rise over the past 3000 years or so to kale, cauliflower, cabbage, brussell sprouts, and broccoli. Most of this variation came from selection. The practice of deliberate plant breeding is not much more than 200 years old. With this as an example, it looks as though we are a long way yet from reaching the point of diminishing returns in selecting lilies. Not only that, but progress should be rapid at first so that the 3000 years should not scare us.
The second implication for us in the prairie region is with respect to hardiness or general suitability to our growing conditions. There will be considerable variation in a species and we can select for it. In one sense, this is easier than for selecting for form, in that the climate does much of the selecting for us. Those plants which are unsuited to our conditions just do not survive after the first year or two. A few examples will illustrate what I mean.
The first time I grew Lilium henryi from seed I lost every seedling the first winter and I thought that the species was too tender for our conditions. However, later seed from another source proved reliable and hardy, and I still have bulbs from the second lot.
The bulbs of the original Lilium pumilum, Yellow Bunting, produced a poor plant lacking vigour with a distorted pistil in the flower. I now have some which grow much better and have normal blooms.
My first experiences with Lilium cernuum and Lilium duchartrei were very unsatisfactory. It was not until I got seed of the two species from Alida Livingston and Jean Ericksen, respectively, that I got reliable plants.
Incidentally, Lilium cernuum is notorious for its susceptibility to basal rot, but here again there seems to be considerable variation. I know that in digging up some 20 bulbs from the same row, that some of them were almost completely destroyed while others were perfectly clean. Sometimes a clean one between two bad ones and vice versa. It looks as though selection might produce resistant cernuums. I am going to try it anyway!
I hope other lily enthusiasts in the CPLS will grow and select from the species and that species classes in our shows will have more and better entries in the future.
by Fred Tarlton (CPLS Newsletter # 9:3-4)