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Lost & Found; the Creelman Lily Blooms Again

July 8, 2022

The “dean of hybridists”, “Grand Lady of Canadian Horticulture”, Isabella Preston (1881-1964) was a self-taught plant hybridist who began her horticultural journey as a student at the Ontario Agricultural College (O.A.C.) which later became a part of the University of Guelph. Under the guidance of Professor J.W. Crow, 1916 brought Preston’s first breakthrough crossing L. regale and L. sargentiate, to produce Lilium x princeps ‘George C. Creelman,’ later known as the Creelman Lily (L. Imperiale ‘George C. Creelman’).

Stock of this tall, attractive, hardy lily was released into commercial circulation in 1923, and went on to win an “Award of Merit” from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1934, however it seems the hybrid didn’t quite have “staying power;” older plants proved difficult to care for, and soon enough the Creelman Lily vanished… or did it?

  • Isabella Preston standing in garden - archival photo
  • An archival photograph of a man looking at a large number of tall, white Creelman lily plants outside the Ontario Agricultural College
  • Archival photo of Isabella Preston standing with rose bush

The “Cold Case” of the Creelman Lily

A handwritten clue, the words “Lilium x ‘George C. Creelman” scrawled on a cocktail napkin, was given to RBG’s Curator of Living Collections, Alex Henderson in 2007 by a colleague who happened to have met the grandson of the real George Creelman in a bar. This launched Henderson into a pursuit of this cultivar that would last for over a decade.

In 2009, Alberta Auger donated bulbs to RBG, but due to transplant shock, the initial evaluation was found the lilies to not be true to type.

After this disappointment the search for the elusive lily was thought to be a cold case, but a call to CBC’s Ontario Today in 2017 sparked a new lead, eventually producing bulbs from sources across the province. In 2018, RBG’s botanists once again meticulously compared the flower form against original descriptions in the notes from RBG’s archives, originally made by plant breeder Isabella Preston in the 1930’s. This process found not only was a bulb donation by Donna Whale true to type, but also that those from 2009 were in fact true to type Creelman.

In late June of 2022, the third donation of bulbs (from Cynthea Culp) were finally identified as true Creelman Lilies, meaning, to Henderson’s delight, all 3 original donations were in fact exactly what they seemed.

  • A Journal page with handwritten descriptions of the creelman lily
  • Alex Henderson standing in office with blooming Creelman Lily in a pot
  • A Black and white photograph of blooming creelman lily

(Re)introducing the Creelman Lily

The public can once again appreciate the beauty of this once lost cultivar. The Creelman Lily grows about 6 feet tall, with white and sweet-smelling flowers featuring yellow throats and pink speckles.

The Creelman Lily has finally found a home at RBG at Laking Garden, alongside other heritage plants in the Barbara Laking Memorial Heritage Garden. Once thought lost, this beautiful cultivar now sits among other heritage plant material acquired from “ghost towns” of southern Ontario. Find it on your next visit!

A grouping of white Creelman Lily blooms against a blue sky. Lilies feature yellow centres, and multiple blooms per tall stem.

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