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Guelph-created lily bloomed throughout the world, then disappeared

Finding the Creelman lily became part of Royal Botanical Gardens curator's 'life story'

Guelph has a connection to an unusual story about lost treasure; not in the form of pirate loot or an elusive gold mine. It would not be found at the end of a rainbow, but in a garden.

This particular treasure was a flower. It was developed through the efforts of Guelph’s own Isabella Preston, whose story was told by GuelphToday in the June 12, 2022.

New varieties of flowers are a combination of science and art. They are the result of imagination, creativity and much work involving cross-breeding and experimentation. Today, a new flower is a valuable commodity, protected by patent. There have even been instances of newly- developed flowers smuggled across borders and sold under fake names.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Canada was not known for developing new varieties of decorative plants. Canadians were more concerned with improving the yields of food crops like apples, wheat and potatoes. Not until 1911 did Howard and Lorrie Dunnington-Grubb, British landscape architects who became co-founders of Sheridan Nurseries, bring to Canada the concept of the English garden. And then they had to import the plants needed to beautify homes and public places from the United States and Europe.

Preston, Canada’s first female professional hybridist, was employed at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) in Guelph in 1916 when she bred a new plant that would become a sensation in the horticultural world. Seeking to develop a hybrid lily that would be hardy enough for the Canadian climate, Preston crossbred two varieties of lily that originated in China and produced a plant she named in honour of George Creelman, president of the OAC.

The Creelman lily was white with pink stripes in its throat, yellow speckles, and a sweet fragrance. Preston’s colleague, Howard L. Hutt, emeritus professor of horticulture at the OAC, would recall years later his reaction when he first saw the new lily.

“I can well remember seeing their first bloom, four and five immense white flowers on sturdy stems about three feet tall. And I thought, well here is a worthwhile new lily. But when I happened to be at the college a week later and saw two or three of the original plants at least five feet high and bearing 15 blooms I felt like taking off my hat, even if I did not throw it up in the air.”

The Creelman lily first became commercially available in 1923. It was a resounding success. The lily graced gardens across North America and Europe, and had admirers as far away as Japan and Australia.

In 1934, it even won an Award of Merit from Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society.

At home in Guelph, the Creelman lily was on display in the gardens of the OAC. It was featured locally in floral arrangements for weddings and other social occasions. Elsewhere it was being used by breeders to create new hybrids.

The Creelman lily remained popular into the 1950s. Then, horticultural tastes changed. Some gardeners also found the older plants were difficult to maintain. The Creelman lily began to vanish from gardens – and then it was gone altogether. Or was it?

The treasure hunt was sparked in 2007 with a dramatic moment in the career of Alex Henderson, curator of the living collections department of the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) of Ontario in Burlington. One of the aims of the RBG is to preserve Canada’s horticultural history.

A colleague of Henderson’s handed him a napkin he’d been given in a bar by Allan Goddard, George C. Creelman’s great-grandson. Written on the napkin were the words “Lilium x ‘George C. Creelman.”

Henderson was intrigued. He knew of the plant by reputation, and thought that finding a specimen would be easy.

Then he learned the RBG didn’t have it.

“I went into our plant records,” he said later in an interview, “and we used to have it.” But not anymore. The treasure hunt was on.

Henderson was experienced in tracking down hard-to-find plants. But he was having no luck with the Creelman lily. Local nurseries didn’t have it. Like an old-time prospector, he went farther afield.

He made inquiries across Canada, and then in Europe and Australia.

“Truly, this became an international quest for me,” he said. Unfortunately the response was always the same. They used to have the Creelman lily, but now they didn’t. “I realized then that this was a very strange story,” Henderson said.

In 2009, Henderson was searching the archives of the RBC when he had what he called “one of those nerd moments, when the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.” He came across a description of the Creelman lily that had been written by Isabella Preston. “Written by her, in her own
handwriting,” he said later.

It was like finding a letter about Captain Kidd’s treasure, written by Captain Kidd himself.

It was a thrilling moment, and solid evidence the Creelman lily wasn’t just a thing of legend.

But the document didn’t put Henderson any closer to an actual live specimen of the elusive plant.

For years the trail was cold. One time Henderson was sent bulbs that were alleged to be from the Creelman lily. He anxiously waited for them to grow and flower, only to be disappointed. The bulbs were from hybrids that had been created by cross-breeding the Creelman with other lilies.

Close, but not the treasure he was seeking.

Then in July of 2017, a woman named Cynthia Culp called in to a radio show called Gardening with Ed Lawrence. She wanted to ask about a plant she had growing in her garden which she said was a Creelman lily. She said the original flowers were from plants given to her grandmother about 1950 by a friend who had bought them at the University of Guelph.

Henderson said when he heard about the call, “It made my hair stand up. I’ve been looking for this plant on and off for 10 years. It’s become part of my life story.”

Culp submitted bulbs to the RBG, where the plants that grew from them were successfully identified as Creelman lilies.

“If it wasn’t for my mom telling me the name, I wouldn’t know they were a rare lily,” she said.

As for why finding the Creelman lily was so important to him, Henderson explained, “It’s a snapshot into our species and how we value beauty.”