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Prairie Lily Breeders:

Alex J. Burnett - Vermilion, Alberta : Pilot Turns Pollinator

The North American Lily Society Yearbook 1994


Alex Burnett was born in 1922 in the rural municipality of East Kildonan, Manitoba. That area, has since progressed from mud roads and wooden sidewalks to become a city on the northeast outskirts of Winnipeg. Alex enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in July 1942, gained his pilot's wings and became a flying instructor during World War II. After the war, he remustered to Aerial Camera Operator engaged in aerial photographic research and when the Korean conflict started in 1951, he received his commission as an Air Traffic Control Officer. After 21 years as an RCAF Traffic Controller, he was ready to enjoy the peace and tranquility of rural life on 22 acres, 5 miles south of Vermilion, Alberta.

Alex became mesmerized with Lilium on a visit to the lily fields of Fred Fellner in July of 1985. As Alex puts it: "It is impossible to describe the beauty and calmness of being surrounded by two acres of lilies in full bloom on a hot, calm, July afternoon under blue Alberta skies. The only noise was caused by hummingbirds and butterflies enjoying the voluptuous beauty of the masses of lilies."

 When Alex returned from the lily fields, Fred Fellner was busy in the greenhouse pollinating the select lilies that he was growing in large tubs. Watching Fred dab pollen on the stigmas of his prize lilies, Alex began asking numerous questions. Fred said, "You can do this. Why don't we go to the field, dig up and pot some lilies for you?". Six clumps of lilies were dug and placed in tubs, driven 20 miles in the back of a half‑ton truck and placed in the greenhouse at Burnett's acreage.

  Virginia Howie's booklet LET'S GROW LILIES became an invaluable introduction to lily culture and a constant early source of reference. Alex's first efforts at hybridizing were successful and considerable seed was obtained by November. He reported that the rest of that long winter was spent in browsing books from the NALS library to find out as much as possible about lily breeding. Besides the books and studying, he offered a list of lily enthusiasts to thank for their help and guidance. Alex's story continues in his own words from this point forward:

 "Fred Fellner receives my warmest appreciation for his continuous guidance and encouragement over the years and for his complete generosity in permitting me to select and dig up some of his botrytis‑resistant lilies so as to follow Fred Tarlton's dictum "Breed the best to the rest". Fred Fellner introduced me to NALS and purchased my first membership. Dick Thomas, now of Grand Forks, British Columbia, was an amazing source of help in hybridizing and growing lilies. He is to be commended not only for sharing his vast hybridizing knowledge especially with polyploids, but also for his unselfish sharing of lily seeds and bulbs over many years. One of Dick's most helpful suggestions has been to hybridize lilies when it is HOT and DRY. He recommends that both the pollen parent and the pod parent be subjected to several days of heat (100°F or 450°C) before pollination and for several days after the pollen has been placed on the stigma. Another lily breeder that has been most helpful is Eckart Schmitzer of Pinsberg, Germany, for his monumental work in listing the available polyploid lilies in the September 1991 NALS Quarterly Bulletin. I am especially indebted for his listing of the pod and pollen fertility of the various lilies. That information saved me many years of frustration on unlikely crosses.

Breeding lilies seems to breed lily friendships. I am most grateful to the many friends that shared seeds and pollen. I am particularly impressed with Terry Willoughby's TW 90­1 where he crossed 'Montreux' with pollen I had given him from 'The Orchid', an unregistered breeder lily. In 1988, I spotted a short (10" ‑ 25cm) lily among some short lilies that Fred Fellner had hybridized for growing in pots. I admired the color of the flower, lilac mauve with dark purple spotting, and immediately thought of an orchid. It was not an attractive plant, short, side‑facing flowers tight to the stem on very short pedicels. Fred did not want the lily, but I had visions of an upfacing lily which would echo 'The Orchids' colors on a long racemous stem. For the past seven years, I have been hybridizing with `The Orchid' and have obtained some lovely lilies, but not the "perfect" lily that all hybridizers hope to produce.

 In 1987, 1 purchased some Asiatic lilies from Basil Hayler of Australia as I wanted to bring different genes into my lily hybridizing. Some of the Australian lilies were 'Beau Geste', 'Black Satin', 'Condamine', 'Fireaway', 'Mainstay', 'Queen of Sheba', etc. 'Condamine' has proven to be a very strong lily both as a pod parent and as a pollen parent. Then in 1988, I purchased several polyploid lilies from Frau Ewald of Germany to try my hand at polyploid breeding. 'Puchanta', 'Pumenta', and 'Pumivetta' were obtained from Peter Schenk of Holland to enhance the polyploid gene pool. In the following years, the greenhouse was full of young lily seedlings in the spring and then in July pots of lilies were dug up and transported to the greenhouse. In northern Alberta, it is more reliable to hybridize in the greenhouse as it is possible to obtain high temperatures for pollination and the pods can mature by November when the full fury of Alberta winters hits outside.

 During the 1995 NALS visit to my lily fields, several knowledgeable lily enthusiasts wondered why I had not registered and introduced some of my lilies. As a result of their prodding, I registered two black red lilies with the Royal Horticultural Society. 'High Flight' is a la dark red from 'Rhodos' x Fellner la black red seedling (possibly 'Kimberley Ann'). And 'Night Flyer', my AB89‑161 'Condamine' x 'Summer Night', lb/c black red flowers, dark buds and black stems. As you can gather from the names, it reflects my 30 years in the Royal Canadian Air Force as I decided to go with the "air force" theme. Dr. Gene Fox liked some of my lilies naming two, 'Wing Commander' and 'Night Squadron' which he will register and introduce for me. There were 319 plants as of AB89‑161 as the 'Condamine' x 'Summer Night' cross provided a large amount of seed which grew into very vigorous seedlings. Of my 319 lilies, 318 were la upright black red flowers with greenish black stems and only one lily was lb/c side to downfacing with black red flowers, very dark buds and black stems. I selected this distinctive lily as 'Night Flyer'.

 Irmgaard Jurke, a lily grower in Lloydminster sent Fred Fellner some bulbs of a strong lily she had grown. Fred gave me a bulb to prevent the possibility of a total loss. The lily 'Irmgaard Jurke' has grown into a very strong spotted pink, I crossed it with pollen from a lily grown from seed from Dick Thomas ('Discovery' x 'Pink Tiger') x 1a white spotless tetra. When crossed with 'Irmgaard Jurke', it produced a striking lb white with a necklace of spots. It is very thick and sturdy so I think I have the "granddaughter" of the spotless tetra from Dick Thomas. The 'Discovery' x 'Pink Tiger' seedling Dick used was from work by Baker of England.

 The theme runs through this article is that lily hybridizers enjoy the unselfish sharing of bulbs, seeds, and pollen from many sources. It should be the ultimate goal of any lily hybridizer to produce the finest lily for the enjoyment of all flower lovers in the world. Excuse me now, as I must move 59 pots of scaled lilies from the solarium to greenhouse. Then I must plan some crosses to be done in the greenhouse next summer and what pod parents to dig up. "A hybridizer's 'work' is never done!"

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