Retiring to a bed of lilies

MILLET, Alta. – The petals have fallen off the lilies and the bulbs have been dug up and mailed to customers.

Little remains to remind visitors that this lily field was once a kaleidoscope of color that draws people on annual pilgrimages. During the prime season from mid-July to mid-August, there are 20,000 blooms a day in the 31Ú2-acre field of prairie-hardy lilies.

After years of breeding and striving for the perfect asiatic hybrid lily, Eugene Fox is still in awe when he sees a blossom that he has been trying to produce for years.

“It’s a creation. It’s a real spiritual experience,” said Fox from his farm about 50 kilometres south of Edmonton.

“I wish I could quit and do something else with my life – I’m hooked. I’ll get up in the morning and look, and I’m just struck almost speechless.”

Fox, a former University of Alberta psychology professor, is one of a handful of serious lily breeders in the world. He also has the rare ability to see beyond a plant’s flaws and know its potential for genetic improvement.

“What a blessing to be given enough insight to look past the plant. I can look at a plant and see what chance it has to move along.

“When I look at lilies, if it’s diseased, I look and see it three generations away from disease.”

A book of knowledge

His love of genetics began as a child growing up on the Prairies. When he was 12, Fox noticed individual differences on cactus. About that time, his mother bought a set of encyclopedias.

It was through those encyclopedias Fox realized plants have gender and can reproduce sexually. “It was the prime realization of my life. I can breed plants.”

Fox began to collect lilies while in his 20s and has grown lilies for the past 25 years. While he was at university, it was a way of relaxing, but it progressed into a passion.

Along the way, he realized there were a lot of barriers to breeding – that he couldn’t just cross a couple of plants and hope for the best. So he set up a lab to do “far-out” crossbreeding and took night classes on genetics.

Today, Fox and his wife Gail are supposed to be retired, but their Fox Lily Ranch seems to be expanding. When Fox worked full time, he planted 150 to 300 seedlings each year. Now that he’s retired, he plants about 3,000.

It takes about seven years from the time Fox candles the embryos in his laboratory, until they’re ready for sale.

In January and February, the seeds are planted in the hothouse in deep wooden flats. By June, when the lilies are 10 to 15 centimetres high and the bulbs are about the size of a pea, they’re transplanted into the field and carefully marked where they grow all year.

The serious work of crossing the flowers begins in mid-July.

Early in the morning, when the bud has just opened, he’ll place a foil cap over the stigma to prevent hummingbirds from pollinating the flower.

During the hot part of the day, using a camel hair brush, Fox paints the stigma with dried pollen he’s collected earlier, and covers it again with the foil cap.

In the fall, when the seed sets, he carefully collects the pods, tags them and places them in a brown paper bag. Over the winter, he holds them in front of a candle, just like an egg, to see if there is a strong embryo.

In the third year from pollination, the plants will have one or two blooms. In the fourth year, Fox will get the first real chance to see what the flower head is like.

If the flower is a success, Fox said he still marvels at the miracle. He said he’ll walk through the lily fields early in the morning saying: “Oh my God, this is what I was after.”

In the fifth year, there will be bulbs of the new variety.

Fox evaluates them for fade resistance, deviation of each bloom, length of time in bloom, plus the esthetic value.

“Anybody can get a pretty flower. I work on a perfect, finished plant.”

This year, Fox released a new lily called Calgary Tower, a tall, red, giant, outfacing lily.

In 1992, he released two hybrid lilies: Black Gold – a black and gold lily named after his hometown, the oil town of Leduc, and Marmalade – named because it looks like “good old-fashioned three-fruit marmalade.”

At a cost of $5 to $10 for the lilies, the venture is not a get-rich scheme for Fox. He said he feels fortunate to make enough money to pay the taxes on the quarter section.

“It’s not money making, it’s a passion.”

Because it takes several years to see the finished product, Fox said he couldn’t quit lily breeding cold.

“I’ll go out of this life trying to beat a hummingbird to the pollen,” he said.

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