Creating Your Own Lilies – The Ultimate Experience for Lilium Growers
The following comments relate specifically to Liliums. However, the principles involved may be applied to any genus.

Why Lilies?

There are about 130 diverse species of Lilium (depending on which authority you choose to accept). There are also a range of varieties of many of the species, and tens of thousands of registered hybrids.  These are new Lilies which have been selected from crosses between two or more different Lilies. Someone considered that they had achieved some different and worthwhile characteristic. 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. However, it is the process which has given us most of the best Lilies we grow today. It 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 50 years ago, most of us only ever knew a handful of Lilies. These may have included 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).  More recently, 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.

Creating your own Lilies is probably one of the most enjoyable interests you can have. All of this can be achieved in the comfort of your own garden, at your convenience.  When it comes to hybridising (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.  Many flowering plants take three or four times this long.   The recent development of Lilies ensures that there are still many opportunities to be visited.

Factors to consider

There are many reasons for creating your own Lilies.  In some cases, we seek a new colour, pattern, or shape of flower.  The size or shape of the inflorescence (how the flowers are arranged on the stem). motivates many.  Resistance to pests or disease, or to climatic influences (snow, ice, or extreme heat) are also important.  You may want something similar to existing lilies, but flowering at another time of year, and so extend your season.  The only important thing is that it achieves a worthwhile purpose.

Finding your way around

The procedures involved are really quite simple.  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. What you need to know that the pollen is found on the 6 anthers. It is then placed on the stigma, 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 off 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.

Traps for new players

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).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.  Use these later 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.

Whatever you seek in creating your own Lilies, there are certain rules nature imposes 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, then success is unlikely short of laboratory intervention.  There are certain rules that apply in relation to polyploid Lilies. Then 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.

Moving on

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.  As you can’t be there all the time, you might miss the right time and lose all your seed to the wind. Securing a paper bag (or a piece of stocking) over the pod can solve that problem. This allows the air to 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.  Grow it to full maturity for several seasons. Now you can select that rare lily, from thousands of seedlings, which might be worthy of registration & broader release.   Like all the really good things in life, they are few and far between. When it happens, you will never have to wonder whether it was all worthwhile.

Creating your own Lilies is so much fun.

Good Luck !!!