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The history of the Oriental Lily

Easter and Mother’s Day are the ultimate days to celebrate with gorgeous, dramatic Oriental lilies. Arcata, California is renown as the birthplace of the legendary Stargazer Lily in 1974, by Dr. Leslie Woodriff. This is the most popular lily of all time and holds a prominent place of honor in floriculture history.

Early on a recent morning, I posed the question to Lane DeVries, the chief executive officer of Sun Valley, “What came before Stargazer?” This question led to a great history lesson on Oriental lilies.

Sun-Valley-Lilies Three new lilies from Sun Valley, left front white ‘Silverside,’ right front dark pink ‘Cabella’ and top white ‘Buriano,’ accompanied by Dr. Woodriffs original breeding brush, bottle and books.The pre-runner to Stargazer and most other lilies currently identified at Orientals is Rubrum (L. speciosum var. Rubrum). This was the stock Dr. Woodriff was working with when Stargazer was created.

Rubrum has a very interesting history itself, according to the Ofuna Botanical Garden in Japan:

In the early part of the 20th Century, Rubrum lilies were so prolific in Japan, they grew wild throughout the country. 1925 to 1935 highlighted this golden age for the Japanese lily enthusiasts.

Hirotaka Uchida was one of Japan’s most proficient farmers of that time. A large exporter of lily bulbs, Hirotaka’s personal pursuit involved the cultivation of exceptional Rubrum lilies. From his fields, he selected lilies bearing the most beautiful flowers that also showed the greatest resistance to disease. These were transplanted to a special field where he and his eldest son, Machao, watched over them.

When World War II began, many orchards were turned in to potato fields. Although flower fields were politically “discouraged”, Hirotaka and Masao had such an affection for the special clones they had been cultivating, that while other flowers disappeared from cultivation, their lily efforts continued. They chose 13 of their finest clones, and as they cared for the superior lilies, little by little, their quantities increased.

After the war, the longed-for export of lily bulbs finally resumed. In 1949, the Uchidas exported the first 60 bulbs of their crowning achievement: a lightly-fragrant, beautiful rose-crimson, spotted Rubrum which had shown exceptional hardiness.

These bulbs made their way to the United States and were traded and bred with additional species by lily enthusiast. Dr. Woodruff was an eclectic soul, who bred lilies with an unparalleled passion. He literally mixed the pollen from many species of lilies to create Stargazer from Rubrum. No one actually knows what additional lily genetics led to the break through lily which bloomed upward, facing towards the sky, hence the name, “Stargazer.”

Around the same time, in Australia breeders were working with a lily named “Journey’s End” which has a similar look to Stargazer which also became breeding stock for future Orientals. Additionally, other breeders were working on the white classic “Casa Blanca” which is the basis of the stunning white Orientals and Orientals Trumpets we have today.

Ironically, in an article from 1987, Dr. Woodriff recounts a story of an Oregon State University professor telling him that any other lily than conventional white wouldn’t sell because white is considered the symbol of purity, to which Dr. Woodriff replied, “We figure on selling these colored ones to people that aren’t quite pure.” Leslie Woodriff was the rogue of the flower world and continued to breed award winning lilies and begonias until his death in 1997, developing other famous varieties such as Black Beauty.

The legacy of Dr. Woodriff is alive and well at Sun Valley, just a mile or so from where the Stargazer was born. A few years back, a friend dropped off some of his breeding equipment and books at the farm for safe keeping. Was this the brush used to gather the pollen that created Stargazer? It is a distinct possibility.

Our crop of award-winning Oriental lilies is looking beautiful for Easter and Mother’s Day. Dr. Woodriff would be proud.