Lilies are classic when it comes to summer cut flowers. Stately Oriental varieties, with their large fragrant flowers and recurved petals, have long been fashion favorites. Shorter, smaller-flowered Asiatic hybrids are prized for their variety of bold colors.
For years, North American flower lovers chose cut lily varieties mostly from these two dominant groups. But not any more. The world of lilies is going topsy-turvy. Busy hybridizers have developed whole new groups of lilies that are rocking the industry and expanding the choices available to lily lovers.
Over the past decade a new group of lilies, the LA hybrids, has captivated the attention of the cut flower world. They are a cross between the popular Asiatic hybrids and the Lilium longiflorum, the type we often refer to in the US as Easter lilies.
These new crossings combine the color range of the Asiatics with the elegant flower form and fragrance of the Easter lilies. While the Asiatic varieties continue to be the most plentiful lily varieties, experts say they are fast being overtaken by the new LA hybrids.
New kids on the block
Now, there’s another new kid on the block, the OT hybrid. These are a cross between the popular Oriental hybrids, which are found mainly in white and pastel pink tones, and the tall and brightly colored Trumpet varieties.
This pairing has produced something new and wonderful: OT lilies combine the exquisite shape and fragrance of Oriental lilies and the expanded color range of the Trumpets.
The OT group is particularly rich in orange and rust colors. Dutch floral experts predict that the OT hybrids will soon challenge Orientals in popularity. The gardening world also knows OTs as Orienpets.
“Lilies have never been more intriguing,” said Frans Roozen, the technical director of the International Flower Bulb Center in Hillegom, Netherlands. “Before the LA hybrids arrived, the latest things happening were what they called the Mid-Century Hybrids, created by Jan de Graaf in Oregon in the 1950s. These are what we now call the Asiatic varieties.
"Now, we have the LA hybrids, arriving in the 1990s, and the OT hybrids arriving today. All are coming onto the market very quickly. It’s an exciting time in lily hybridizing!”
Technology brings new lily varieties to market quickly
In the world of bulb flower hybridizing, patience is a virtue. For most of history, it has taken as long as 10 to 20 years to bring a new flower variety to market. This is still true of tulips and most other popular spring-flowering bulbs.
For lilies, however, science has found a way to step in.
The actual crossing or hybridizing in lilies is still done by traditional methods. The pollen of different varieties are mixed together on a mother plant to produce seeds of a new variety.
The resulting seeds are then grown, taking several years to grow into bulbs large enough to flower and reveal the attributes of the new crossing.
Thousands of these crossings are done by a hybridizer and most are discarded as providing results of insufficient interest. But when that one-in-a-million seedling with highly desirable traits is selected for trial, science now helps speed the reproduction process.
Lilies can be reproduced in a laboratory through a process called tissue culture. One bulb can be parent to thousands as small slivers of the parent bulb are grown on in the laboratory into plants large enough to move into the commercial green house or growing field.
In this way, a grower can increase his stocks of bulbs quickly, gaining decades on traditional methods of bulb propagation. Using these methods, hot new varieties can be brought to market in as few as five years.
Big changes in the near future
OT hybrids are a reality now. Alongside the LA hybrids they are changing the dynamics of the lily niche, for both cut flower production and flower gardening.
And, there are other developments on the horizon, though not yet in commercial production. One is the LO lily, a cross between the Easter lily, Lilium longiflorum, and Oriental lilies. The new hybrids feature the beautiful fragrant Oriental lily flower but in a smaller size.
It’s a whole new look that’s also easier to pack and ship. This factor is significant as it will save producers and wholesalers money, and offer consumers beautiful flowers for less.
Other excitement is focused on current efforts to produce a four-way mix of Orientals, Asiatics, Trumpets and Longiflorums, to create a totally new kind of lily featuring the best traits of each.
In the Netherlands, where the quest for this latest floral phenomenon is under way, various names are being floated, among them LAOTS for Longiflorum Asiatic Oriental Trumpet. What a mouthful!
Whatever name the new flower is eventually known by, its vigorous habit, unexpected colors, and fragrant upright flowers are awaited eagerly. The first of these new hybrids are expected to be on the market within the next five years.
A passion for lilies
“What’s happening in the world of lilies is really a blend of old world skills and new technology," says Roozen. "It’s a world of romance where mystery and passion meet science head-on in the hybridizer’s search to create something never before seen except in his own imagination.
“The skills of the hybridizer remain the same as they have for centuries,” says Roozen, “but new technology brings the product to market so fast that old-timers look at it like some sort of miracle.
"It’s a good thing, I think. In the past we in the business have always been reluctant to talk about the ‘hot new thing’, because it took so long to build up the product stock.
"Now, with new lilies reproduced by tissue culture, exciting new varieties come onto the market and there are enough for people who want them.”