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Prairie Lily Breeders

Eugene Fox: Blooming Lilies

By: Gail Fox Millet, Alberta

NALS Yearbook 1974

    From childhood Gene was interested in flowers and in lilies for almost as long. However, it took home ownership and a yard of his own to get him buying bulbs and desiring to learn more about lilies. That was about 1962. Family photos from 1965 onward reveal mature clumps of lilies in the backgrounds. At this juncture, an article on the great plant and lily hybridizer, Robert Simonet, appeared in the Edmonton Journal. The actual idea of hybridizing lilies specifically was planted in Foxy's brain by that article.

   Work, a post graduate education and family responsibilities all conspired to keep gardening to a minimum for many years. Then, from 1971 onward Gene and I owned a farm as a country retreat from the city of Edmonton. The retreat became too attractive and the city residence was sold. Gradually, the garden plots began to expand on the farm. Each year more perennials were planted and new lily bulbs were planted. Most early bulb acquisitions were from garden supply shops and spring or fall sales at Kresge's or Woolworth's department stores. A good measure of these were "Mid‑Century, Jagra hybrid" bulbs packaged and shipped in display boxes by Oregon Bulb Farms for resale by commercial vendors. The `Jagra" on the label was a contraction of Jan de Graaff. Some of those early bulbs were: `Halloween', `Sunray', `Firebrand', `Vanguard' and `Cherub'. We still have bulbs from all these cultivars growing in our gardens. Martagons came to Gene's attention somewhat indirectly about this time through Ed Robinson's Gaybird Nursery catalog. We had been interested in getting various flowering crabs and apple trees for landscaping. Gaybird listed not only trees, but also Asiatic lilies and martagons. Several martagons were purchased almost yearly during those times. Twenty‑five years later, those martagons still persist. They have been vastly augmented by two decades of Gene's own planned‑crosses, martagon seeds from around the world and martagon bulb and pollen acquisitions.

   Shortly thereafter, Gene read about two Saskatchewan mail order firms: Honeywood Lilies and Riverside Gardens. Hence, Porter and Patterson lilies were purchased. From then on, lots of importations were made from the USA, England, Scotland, Germany and from down under.

    Gene said, "I thought my lily fascination was unique and longed for some more information and went to the library and with several lily books continued the journey." By the late 1970s contacts were made with a few people who knew about NALS and about Fred Fellner. A first visit was made to Mr. Fellner's lily fields about that time.  "What a marvelous sight that was... tens of thousands of vigorous upfacing lilies blooming over a huge acreage. Nothing had prepared me for the size and the impact of the color. What an inspiration to continue with lilies," remembers Gene.

      Along with amassing lily cultivars, Gene was avidly collecting books on lilies and books on breeding herbaceous perennials. No used bookstore anywhere was neglected as most books on lilies have been out of print for decades and some for over 100 years. He acknowledges NALS as the single best source of information and contacts. As Gene was at the University of Alberta as a professor, he secured permission to take or audit courses in genetics and microbiology. He also made friends with some staff in those areas who were generous in giving him their personal time to discuss or demonstrate technical matters.

      Annual treks to NALS and regional shows in various US and Canadian cities and garden visits to breeders and growers were enlightening. Taking judges' training and apprenticing with the giants in hybridizing, showing and growing was a real education for him, also. Gene says, "you learn at the show tables, the banquet tables and the breakfast tables. No hybridizer should act in isolation."

      Before 1980, Gene was yearly making a dozen or so planned and protected crosses. By 1984, the actual number of crosses rose dramatically and included mostly Asiatic and martagon hybrids. His goals for hybridizing Asiatics and martagons were broad because of his reading and NALS experience. He keeps a huge basic gene pool comprised of thousands of his own selected seedlings from past years that have proved to have:

1. Botrytis and disease resistance,

2. Stem and pedicel strength,

3. Balanced inflorescence and uncrowded floral   placement,

4. Vigorous foliage,

5. One or more novel features or qualities which differ from existing registered lilies.

     He also has some personally selected seedling lilies for breeding work that came from such persons as Fred Fellner, Fred Tarlton, Alex Burnett, Norgart Martschinke, Otto Beutnagel and others. Each year Gene decides on a few specific major breeding emphases for his Asiatic work. For example, in 1988 his emphasis was on tall 1c whites and also on inter species breeding. In 1989, some 3100 seedlings from the crosses of 1988 were planted out. From that work, a tall, eggshell white, unspotted and relaxed turkscap is being increased for introduction. It is elegant. Also a smashing, ultra early coral, la derived from L. wilsoni x L. pumilum is being propagated for release. It is the first, quality Asiatic to bloom every year and what a beautiful, glowing harbinger of the season!

     The major breeding emphasis for each year is different, but long‑term goals are carried forward in addition. In 1989, two specific goals were 1. colorfast pink and 2. high bud count racemous inflorescences. To get to that stage, Gene had coded all his pink lilies with a code that reflected the number of sunny days that a pink bloom would retain its color. Some named pink cultivars such as `Bonnie' and `Malta' were used as were many of his own pink, rose, lilac/pink and cherry colored seedlings. Just over 1500 seedlings were planted from those crosses in 1990. They resulted in many pinks, but only 3 remarkably fade proof pinks. Only one of the three, a lb in a spotless, but vibrant lilac pink was superior in all factors. It is being watched and increased. It will be named and released if it measures up to all health parameters. Visitors to our gardens have clamored for it, so Gene feels that it should be popular.

     Over the years, I too, have taken an active interest and enjoyment in the lilies. Every late afternoon during bloom season, we tour our 6 or 7 acres of lilies together and are always evaluating seedlings and selections. A few martagons and a few Asiatic hybrids have been registered and released. Gene also enlists my help when we select lily stem entries for the show bench. That provides a little extra spice and excitement.