Why You Should Grow Lilies

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Why You Should Grow Lilies

Lily production in the United States has evolved in recent years to adapt to changing trends in consumer interest, available technology, the development of new cultivars and research leading to new uses for growth regulators to modify crops.

Historically, the majority of lily bulbs grown in the U.S. are for cut-flower sale. This has ranged from 100 million to 120 million lily stems per year over the past five years. Of the major cut flowers sold in the U.S., lilies are one of the few produced mainly in the U.S., with only a small percentage being imported from other countries.

While the popularity of lilies for cut-flower use continues to be very strong, popularity of potted lilies, based on production, has increased about 10 percent per year for the past several years. Part of the increased demand for potted lilies is because consumers view the plant as a dual-purpose purchase.

The potted lily remains a strong florist plant, especially around holidays like Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day and Christmas. But consumers are realizing they can get more for their money with this plant by planting it in the garden after flowering as a perennial. This works especially well for crops timed for Easter and Mother’s Day, which coincide with major garden planting sales. In the current tight economy, consumers are becoming more practical in their discretionary spending, making it a good time for crop producers and retailers to take advantage of crossover crops that can be sold for both purposes.

Dutch Cultivars

Increased consumer interest in the pot lily category is also being driven by the availability of so many new cultivars in the market. Lily breeding is at an all-time high. Initial buildup of new cultivars by tissue culture propagation is faster now than the traditional scaling techniques. It takes about eight years from seedling selection for a new cultivar to be released.

Lilytopia 2011

For more about new trends in lily production, consider attending Lilytopia 2011 which takes place May 20-30 at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa. This unique collaboration involving Longwood Gardens, The Royal Dutch Trade Association for Flower Bulbs and Nursery Stock (Anthos), The International Flower Bulb Center, The Royal Netherlands Embassy to the United States, OFA, breeders and shipping companies is designed to improve awareness of the beauty, fragrance, variety and diversity of sustainable uses for lilies. 

Lilytopia is the largest lily exhibition in North America featuring displays of 13,000 lily stems, including the newest varieties, choreographed by top Dutch floral designer, Dorien van den Berg. The event includes a full-day educational symposium on May 23, with speakers from The Netherlands and the United States covering today’s hottest topics that can help professionals grow smarter and improve their bottom line.

The Netherlands currently leads the breeding efforts with individual companies producing as many as 6 million seedlings per year, from which 10 to 20 will be selected for release as new cultivars. Increased breeding emphasis on genetic dwarf varieties has led to the introduction of several new cultivars of both Asiatic and Oriental lilies to the market that finish in the 14- to 24-inch range. The new Tiny series of Asiatic lilies, released by Mak Breeding in the Netherlands, has some parentage from the earlier Pixie series developed by Oregon Bulb Farms in the U.S. The Tiny series includes: ‘Bee,’ ‘Dino,’ ‘Todd,’ ‘Sensation’ and many others. The Sunny series is a dwarf line of Oriental lilies including ‘Bonaire,’ ‘Borneo,’ ‘Sulawesi’ and ‘After Eight.’

These and other new dwarf cultivars allow growers to produce a florist crop without the added expense and labor required for growth regulator applications, and they allow gardening consumers a wider range of garden uses for lilies that require shorter plants.

Interdivisional Hybrids

Recent breeding has also produced many new cultivars referred to as interdivisional hybrids. These efforts combine the characteristics of the various traditional hybrid divisions into new combinations. Examples are the LO hybrids combining traits of Lilium longiflorum with the Oriental hybrid division. The LA hybrids combine traits of Lilium longiflorum with the Asiatic hybrid division. And perhaps the most impressive new group is the OT hybrids, combining traits of the Oriental hybrid division with trumpet lilies. Not only do these make excellent cut flowers, many are outstanding garden plants, easily producing 20 flowers or more per stem and resulting in a four- to five-week display. These new interdivisional hybrids dramatically increase the range of flower color, shape and size; stem length and thickness; and fragrance.

Older Cultivars

Breeding is producing many great new cultivars, yet older cultivars are still being produced very effectively with the help of new production techniques such as new ways to employ growth regulators for: controlling plant height of pot lilies with Sumagic, Topflor and Florel; and increasing the shelf life of potted lilies and the vase life of cut lilies with Fascination. Controlling stem length has long been a key issue for production of pot lilies because many of the older cultivars tended to be taller than ideal for a potted florist plant.

Now, growers have many chemical approaches to managing plant height with Florel perhaps being the most surprising. Bill Miller’s work at Cornell University has shown plants treated with Florel as a drench. Managing floral development with Fascination allows growers greater control of crop production times. Initially, Fascination was used to extend the life of cut lily stems. Now, Fascination is used to extend the life of potted lilies as well.

In trials we conducted at Longwood Gardens several years ago, we found that applications of Fascination to potted Easter lilies and Oriental lilies just prior to the first flower opening extended display life of the crop by at least a week. Application of Fascination to these crops one to two weeks earlier delayed opening of the first flower by about one week as well.

Fascination also can be used to prevent lower-leaf chlorosis associated with cold storage of finished Oriental lily plants to hold them for later sales. By applying Fascination, plants can be held in cold storage for up to two weeks without damage.

Year-Round Potential

Another new trend we are seeing is that lilies are now being grown for year-round production. Lily production used to be restricted to the cooler months of October through May. When lilies were potted during the higher-temperature months, it resulted in too much shoot growth before there was enough root system to support them. That led to thin, weak stems and aborted flowers.

Now some cut flower producers and pot lily growers are potting bulbs in summer months and placing pots in coolers at 41° to 48°F for the first two to three weeks to allow root growth before placing them on the greenhouse bench. Using this strategy, crops can be forced in every month of the year.

Year-round production has also been supported by advances in ultra-low oxygen storage of bulbs, improving the quality of bulbs held in storage for up to a year and also by the availability of bulbs from the Southern Hemisphere which are harvested six months later than Northern Hemisphere bulbs. So growers have multiple options for access to bulbs all year.

The Impact On You

So, where will the trends in U.S. lily production lead in the future? Perhaps we can look at the Wetering Potlilium company in Den Hoorn, Holland as an example of where U.S. technology will be going in a few years.

The Wetering Potlilium company is probably the most technologically advanced pot lily producer in the world. The company combines the newest greenhouse design, including a section of greenhouse that sits above the planting and packing area for increased efficiency; use of a co-generation plant to produce heat and electricity and improve fuel efficiency; and the use of automation and robotics for potting bulbs, transporting plants through the greenhouse, and harvesting the finished crop to reduce manual labor. The company consistently produces the highest quality lilies on the market. This technology is beginning to find its way to the U.S. and can be seen in facilities like Len Busch Roses in Minnesota.

In my opinion, the future of lily production in the United States will also need to employ more sustainable methods. This includes using biodegradable pots, using compost and other organic materials in potting media and relying less on synthetic fertilizers and other chemical inputs. At Longwood Gardens, we have been using paper pots to produce pot lilies for more than 10 years with great success. We are currently evaluating media with up to 30 percent compost for production of pot lilies to reduce reliance on peat moss-based media.

Future lily production will also have to require less synthetic chemical input and reduced energy consumption from fossil fuels. So, with all the new trends in lily production, there is no doubt there is still room for improvement.

Jim Harbage supervises research and greenhouse production efforts at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.

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