by Sarah West
From woodlands to meadows to marshy banks and alpine perches, the lily family is well represented among the wildflowers of our temperate region. Members of the lily clan served as important food sources for tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest long before European settlement—from the starchy staple of camas root to medicinal wild onions—and later as a source of garden specimens sent back to mainland Europe in the early days of Western exploration.
Lily family species are one of our oldest foods—onion and garlic have been cultivated for over 7,000 years and provide a foundational flavor in nearly every cuisine. Lily flowers were featured in the ancient gardens of Crete, Iran and Egypt, holding a special place of honor (and associations with gods and goddesses) for the purity of their beauty and the power of their fragrance.
Fast-forward a few thousand years and you may be surprised to find that an important chapter in the advancement of ornamental lilies took place right here in Oregon. Lacking pharaohs or kings to extol their virtues, lilies of our era are subjects of the marketplace and their royalty is granted based on durability and profitability.
As a species, lily blooms tend to face downward, their petals peeling back to reveal enlarged pollen anthers to attract pollinators. Before the 20th Century, lilies were not a desirable bouquet flower because their drooping blooms created an odd contrast.
Long admired among garden aficionados, lilies before the early 1900’s were a finicky lot. Mostly wild-collected specimens, they were considered troublesome in the garden—prone to viral diseases and other hazards of existence outside their native habitat.
Jan de Graaff changed all that in 1941 at his Gresham nursery, Oregon Bulb Farms, when he made a lily cross that produced disease-resistant, upright orange blooms for the first time. The variety, which quickly reversed the reputation of lilies as horticulturally difficult and commercially undesireable, was named ‘Enchantment.’
Soon after, de Graaff converted his mixed bulb nursery exclusively to lily production, sending his lilies throughout the world to commercial flower growers and gardeners alike and remaining a hotbed of lily breeding for the next 40 years. The only shortcoming of de Graaff’s effort was that, in breeding for hardiness, flower orientation and color, he outbred the species’ celebrated fragrance.
The work of Leslie Woodriff, an eccentric but genius lily breeder living in Brookings, Oregon, corrected that absence. In his messy greenhouse, Woodriff created unconventional crosses and was well known in the flower industry for his outstanding varieties. Lacking business skills, assets, or much income, he worked away on his unkempt farm until a collaborative opportunity with an up and coming bulb farmer, Ted Kirsch, came his way. The two worked out a deal to transfer ownership of some of Woodriff’s breeding stock to Kirsch’s new farm in exchange for a set fee and full-time work.
The breeding stock that Kirsch bought and Woodriff tended at the new farm resulted in the discovery of a seedling that has become the world’s most famous, and profitable, lily. Called ‘Star Gazer,’ the lily stood out for its striking fragrance, bold coloration, and that elusive flower orientation, whose star-ward gaze inspired the variety’s name.
Though more acreage of Star Gazer is cultivated today than any other lily and its ubiquity is apparent in flower shops across the globe, neither Woodriff nor Kirsch ever made their rightful fortune from it. Woodriff was out of luck as he’d sold ownership of the stock just before discovering Star Gazer. Kirsch made some unfortunate patenting decisions that resulted in a significant financial loss to his company over time.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, Oregon Bulb Farms attracted and trained many of the next generation of American lily breeders, among them Judith Freeman, whose work with laboratory hybrids greatly expanded the diversity of hardy and delightful garden lilies. Her farm, The Lily Garden, still breeds and sells a wide range of exciting lilies just outside of Vancouver, Washington.
From our indigenous lilies to the innovative breeding work that Oregon was host to, our home ground has a long history with this species. And as you smell a Star Gazer in your market bouquet, admire beguiling hybrids in the garden, or come across a wild lily in bloom on your next hike, you will find their charm remains as apparent as it is abundant.