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Adventures in hybridizing.

It has been over 20 years now since I first got hooked on growing lilies. I met Marvin Joslin and Dan Dale at a flower show in Spruce Grove, Alberta, and was fascinated with the beautiful stems that they had entered. What really amazed me was the number of blooms on each stem and the variety of colours. When I talked with Dan, I asked why the lilies I was growing would only get 2 or 3 blooms and were all orange. He explained that I must be growing "dauricum" lilies (Lilium dauricum syn. L. pensylvanicum) and that was typical of their form. He went on to tell me that he had a little business called Lilydale Lilies and that he offered bulbs for sale in the fall. Dan gave me one of his catalogues and that fall I placed a small order for some Asiatic lilies and a couple of martagon lilies that he suggested I should try. I found out that martagons are found in Europe and Asia, including Japan, and have little nodding Turk's cap flowers that range from pure white to an extremely dark black-red. The species martagon and their hybrids generally grow from 4' to 6' tall with leaves that form a whorl. They tolerate more shade than most other lilies and are extremely hardy, growing quite successfully here on the prairies.

The following spring, the bulbs came up and the Asiatics bloomed beautifully, but the martagons were quite a disappointment. I was fortunate enough to view Dan's garden that same summer and couldn't believe how gorgeous the martagons in his collection were! I was particularly taken by the dark red varieties. I told Dan that the martagons I had purchased had not performed very well. Dan replied that martagons generally do not like to be moved and quite often the following year after being planted they may "sulk" or not come up. He then reassured me that within a couple of seasons they would establish themselves and grow just like the ones in his garden.

By this time I had started to meet with other lily growers and had become involved in the formation of the Alberta Regional Lily Society (ARLS). It was through ARLS that I met Fred Tarlton. Fred had been hybridizing lilies for many years and gave a demonstration of hybridizing lilies at our first spring seminar. It seemed very intriguing and when my own expanding lily collection came into bloom in its second season, I became an obsessed "Pollen Dabbler." To me, watching the seed pods swell was even more exciting than watching the flower buds develop! As the days shortened, the seed pods ripened and I collected the seed which I planted under lights in my basement early the next spring. It was such a thrill to watch the seedlings emerge within a week or 2 of being planted, but it would be 2 more years until I saw my first blooms. I had yet to make a cross with a martagon lily at this point as I had been focusing on the Asiatics.

It was now my third year of seriously growing lilies and indeed the martagons had established themselves just as Dan had predicted. I decided to try my hand at making a few crosses. At this point I still only had a few martagon cultivars of my own, so I asked Dan if I could have some pollen which he generously shared with me. Some of the pods swelled and I was able to collect seed from these pods. I planted these seeds in the same way as I had the Asiatic seed and nothing happened. While not overly discouraged, I thought it best to find out what I was doing wrong.

I was told that martagon seed does not germinate the same way that Asiatic seed does. Whereas Asiatic lily seed is epigeal (putting up a leaf above ground right away and then forming the bulblet), seeds of martagons and some other species germinate in a hypogeal manner. That is, the seed forms a tiny bulblet below ground first and then a leaf emerges later in the process. Apparently, to get martagon seed to germinate, the seed should be put into plastic baggies filled with a slightly moistened medium (such as peatmoss) and then stored at room temperature for 2 to 3 months. A small bulb about the size of a grain of rice will usually form, but to get any vegetative growth, a cold treatment of 2 to 3 months must follow. An old refrigerator works well for this, so they said. A single leaf will form the first season, growing about 3/4" long. Then it usually takes 5 to 7 years for the bulbs to reach mature flowering size.

At the end of the following summer I collected more martagon seed and was able to get them to grow. I planted out my first crop of seedlings, but unfortunately lost them all. I soon found out that since the bulbs were so small, and due to our harsh winter conditions, that I would have had better success if they had been grown in containers for 2 to 3 years. My first martagon seedlings from seed that I had hybridized in 1990 finally bloomed in 1996. There was a beautiful dark red seedling that grew nearly 6' tall, but by this time, I had misplaced the records of what cross "90-4" was! Since then, I carefully record all the information about the crosses I make each summer and store all this information in a hybridizer's record journal.

When my 1991 martagon crosses bloomed in 1997, one particular cross produced many seedlings ranged from white, off-white, light yellow, dark yellow and a few pinks. What struck me was that many of these seedlings had a very flat flower form. Some of them were slightly out-facing rather than the tightly recurved down-facing Turk's cap blooms typical to what I had been seeing in most martagon hybrids. I checked my record journal and found that this cross was "Dalhansonii x Hantsing." I was very surprised at what had come out of this cross as I had been trying to produce dark red seedlings by using two dark red parents. I then did some research on the parents and found that Dalhansonii (the pod parent) was developed by crossing L. martagon var. dalmaticum (which is a very dark red form of the martagon species) by L. hansonii (which is a yellow species lily closely related to martagons that originates from Dagelet Island off the coast of Korea). The pollen parent, 'Hantsing,' was developed by crossing L. x dalhansonii x L. x tsingtauense. L. tsingrauense is a closely related martagon species from China which has out-facing orange flowers and a characteristic lower petal that sweeps backward giving it a very distinctive and easily identifiable look.

This was a turning point in my hybridizing efforts as rather than working on producing more dark reds as many of nay other crosses had done, I thought I should turn my focus to these flat-flower forms and try to get them out-facing as well. I selected all of the seedlings with these desirable characteristics and made several crosses with using off-white flat flower forms crossed by similar seedlings. Some bloomed the summer of 2004, but surprisingly, many of them turned out to have dark red flowers! I have been using L. tsingtauense to produce out-facing flowers and saw some results in the summer of 2003 and 2004. Most of these seedlings have been orange with large flowers, narrow petals and many are pollen free.

I have seen many beautiful martagon seedlings come out of nay efforts thus far and every year as new seedlings bloom, I see just how much more work I still have to do. Over the years many people have asked why I have not introduced some of my hybrids. I believe that it is imperative that the hybrids be thoroughly tested for disease resistance and desirable growing characteristics before they can be considered for introduction. Many of mine have these desirable characteristics and have proven to be good garden lilies. However, in order to register, introduce and offer them for sale, sufficient quantities must be available in order for it to be practicable. And, because martagon lilies multiply at a rate significantly slower than Asiatic lilies, this will not happen for some time.

Terry Willoughby is a founding members of the Alberta Regional Lily Society and a member of the North American Lily Society. He is from Parkland County, AB and is obsessed with hybridizing martagon lilies.
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Title Annotation:lilies
Author:Willoughby, Terry
Publication:Prairie Garden
Geographic Code:1CALB
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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