Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

by Amy Stewart

ISBN: 9781565126039

Publisher Algonquin Books

Published in Science/Nature & Ecology, Business & Investing/Industries & Professions

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Birds, the Bees, and a Camel Hair Brush

Among lily breeders, Leslie Woodriff is a horticultural legend, but in my hometown people remember him as the eccentric old guy in the broken-down greenhouse along the highway. I've only seen photographs of him-he died in 1997-but I think "eccentric" is a fair description. He had a shock of stiff white hair that stood up in every direction, a strong, square face, and wildly uneven teeth that he never tried to hide. In every picture he is smiling broadly, and he is always surrounded by his lilies.

In 1988, a Dutch grower named Piet Koopman came to visit Woodriff and get to know the man who bred the famous 'Star Gazer' lily. If he expected a genteel, tweedy, professorial fellow with a country home and a sparkling conservatory full of wonders, he was in for a rude shock. Woodriff was broke, his health was failing, and his house seemed to be on the verge of collapse. He was never known for keeping a particularly tidy greenhouse, and Koopman was astonished to see his world-class collection of lilies stored haphazardly in a musty, insect-ridden environment. Woodriff appeared unconcerned and was interested in talking with Koopman only about the one subject that held his interest: lily breeding. He had a photographic memory for lilies and knew each species and cultivar by heart. He seemed to dream of a lily before he bred it, grasping in some intuitive way those traits that could be combined to create the lily that lived in his imagination. But Koopman was so distracted by what he saw that he found it hard to concentrate on the conversation.

"I could not believe that this man, who had done so much for the lily industry, was living like this," Koopman told me. "I was shocked about his situation. I had my video camera with me, but I was too embarrassed to even make a video. The Dutch growers made so much money from 'Star Gazer', and I could not believe that he had so little." Koopman didn't stay long. He went back to Holland, surprised and confused, trying to decide if publicizing the famous breeder's plight would help Woodriff or humiliate him.

This is where the quest for the perfect flower begins-in the greenhouse or laboratory of a breeder like Leslie Woodriff who has a vision for a flower that everyone will want. A flower like that doesn't happen by itself. It takes a hybridizer to turn an ordinary garden bloom into the most sought-after designer flower of the season. Woodriff's 'Star Gazer' lily is one of the most remarkable such flowers to come along in a century. Its story has all the elements of the grand sweeping history of flower breeding: risks taken, flowers prized and sought after, fortunes won and lost. Because it came along when it did, the 'Star Gazer' lily stands at a crossroads between old-fashioned plant breeders and modern hybridizers, between small-time florists and global corporations.

What Leslie Woodriff did to his lilies is no different from what a bee or a butterfly would do: he brushed pollen from the stamen of one flower onto the stigma of another. There was no microscope, no gene splicing, not even a sterile environment. Woodriff, and breeders like him, interfered with the sexual activities of plants for one reason: a passion for flowers. He worked tirelessly to create new breeds of lilies because he was wildly in love with the flower and emboldened to push it to its limits, attempting to cross species that everyone else had declared incompatible. He hoped to make a living by breeding and selling lilies, but he was never a businessman. Leslie Woodriff was simply unable to do anything besides breed flowers, and in some ways it didn't matter whether he got paid for it or not.

Today, most hybridizers in the cut flower industry are geneticists working in laboratories, and they may or may not have any interest in flowers at all. A scientist who works for Suntory, a Japanese company that sells liquor as well as cut flowers, told me, "My last assignment was developing yeast for beer. Now it's roses. Under the microscope, it's really all the same to me." I can only imagine what Woodriff would say in response to that. A rose is not a fungus. A lily is not a carrot. Of course two living things are not the same, under a microscope or anywhere else.

Lilies are easy to breed because they are so anatomically simple. From just one lily, you can learn almost everything you need to know about how flowers are made. Its anatomy is right there, out in the open-there's no need to go hunting around between crumpled petals to find a stamen or a stigma the way you might with a rose. Lilies, which occupy the same taxonomic family as tulips and fritillaries, rise on a single, usually leafless, stalk from a soft, fleshy bulb. The bulb produces scales, often in a concentric, spiral pattern originating from the base, which can be teased away to produce new plants. (Breeders call this method of propagation "scaling a lily.")

The flowers themselves, of which there can be one, a half-dozen, or several dozen, connect to the main stem by means of a short stalk called a pedicle. All lilies have six petals, but to be entirely accurate, the three outermost petals are called sepals-the outer coverings that fold back to reveal the flower inside. (On many other flowers, the sepals are not so similar to the petals themselves. Picture the small green sepals at the base of a rose, for instance.) Some lilies sport several blossoms arranged in a series along the stalk-this is called a raceme structure-and others burst out together from a single point on the tip of the stalk, which is called an umbel structure. (Queen Anne's lace is a good example of an umbel-the tiny white blossoms all emerge from the end of the stalk and are connected to it by thin pedicles.) Sometimes a lily's petals curl back and almost touch behind the flower-these are called turkscap lilies-and others open into a gentle saucer shape. Some, including the ubiquitous Easter lily, form a trumpet or funnel shape.

Regardless of the precise shape of the flowers they are all quite similar inside. All lilies have six stamens arranged in a hexagon shape around the center. Each stamen consists of a filament-a thin stalk-and an anther-the yellow or reddish head that discharges pollen. From the center of the flower emerges one single, unique structure called the pistil, which is the female part of the anatomy that includes the stigma, the style, and the ovary. The stigma is the sweet sticky end of the female anatomy that lures butterflies and moths, who slide their long, narrow tongues inside to sip nectar. In the process, they often brush against the anthers and carry pollen from one lily to another. If the pollen is just the right shape and size, it will travel down the style to the ovary, where three hundred to five hundred eggs await fertilization. The stigma will accept the pollen of many different kinds of lilies, so that one seed capsule can produce offspring from any number of fathers. But if for some reason the pollen isn't compatible with the egg, it will not be fertilized. Split a lily's seed capsule open and shake the seeds onto a light table: the fertilized seeds will stand out because the embryo will show up as a dark, curved center inside the seed.

To make a cross, a lily breeder considers more than color and scent. Each parent plant brings with it a set of characteristics that include the shape of the bulb; the number and size of leaves; the color of the pollen; the presence of speckles near the center of the flower; the size and shape of the blossom; susceptibility to frost, dampness, and drought; disease resistance; and hundreds of other characteristics. To get the best results, a breeder will often attempt a reciprocal cross, meaning that if the pollen from the first plant fertilized the second, then pollen from the second plant should also be able to fertilize the first. Sometimes these reciprocal crosses can produce hardier, more fertile offspring, but this is not the only tool lily breeders have available to them: since 1935, it's been known that colchicine, an alkaloid derived from autumn crocus, can be applied to seeds or seedlings to double the number of chromosomes from twenty-four to forty-eight. These super lilies, called tetraploids, are usually stronger and sturdier. While this kind of genetic tinkering sounds pretty technical, many tetraploid lilies have been produced by amateur breeders who dropped crocus bulbs into a blender and made a crude colchicine solution to use in the greenhouse.

There are about a hundred species of lilies and countless crosses have been made from those. The species are broadly grouped into eight categories, and the most popular among those for the cut flower industry are the trumpet lilies, the Asiatic hybrids, and the Oriental hybrids. Oriental lilies are the largest, most flamboyant, and most fragrant of their genus, but they weren't used much in the cut flower trade because the downward-facing flowers had a tendency to snap off the stem during harvesting and packing. They were difficult to work into bouquets as well: in a mixed bunch of upward-facing flowers like roses, daisies, and carnations, the droopy Orientals looked out of place. Asiatics are popular for their bright, bold colors, but they are also smaller and unscented. There are upward-facing Asiatics, including 'Enchantment', which have been on the market since the 1940s. Breeders thought that if only someone could take the upward habit of the Asiatics and work it into the big, bold, fragrant Orientals, it could revolutionize the cut flower trade in lilies. No one could figure out how to do it until Leslie Woodriff, through some combination of idiosyncrasy and instinct, hit upon the right cross.

Woodriff was part of the last generation of true, old-fashioned flower breeders. People have enjoyed cut flowers for thousands of years, and over the last few centuries men like Woodriff have made it possible to breed a flower for commercial purposes-to make a flower do what the breeder wants it to do. In the mid-1600s, a physician in England named Nehemiah Grew was the first to suggest that although some of the "outward elegancies of plants" (i.e., the flower itself) might be for man's delight, the "inward ones, which are as precise and varied as the outward," must be for the benefit of the plants, not their admirers. He believed that petals and scents were created by God to delight humans, but he was one of the first to realize that inside the flower lay structures that might enable them to reproduce.

It wasn't until the late 1600s that botanists began to speculate that pollen might be the equivalent of sperm, but even that notion had its detractors, including a scientist in the early eighteenth century named Johann Siegesbeck who believed that "sex in flowers was not only scientifically unconvincing but morally revolting as well." But horticulturalists would not be deterred, and in the early 1760s Joseph Koelreuter, a German botanist, created what may have been the first hybrid by crossing two species of tobacco.

Gradually, during the 1700s and 1800s, botanists came to understand the role of insects in the pollination of flowers, but it was Charles Darwin's work with orchids that proved that plants may adapt themselves to their pollinators. This was an important discovery that shaped much of what we know about flower genetics. Consider the shape of a snapdragon, with its cup-shaped blossom designed to snap open when a bee enters, or the "bee lines" leading to the center of an alstroemeria, or the bull's-eye pattern of contrasting color in the center of a hibiscus. Now we know that some flowers have evolved to change colors after they've been successfully pollinated, often shifting to a hue that their pollinator can't see. (Bees, for instance, can't see red, so a flower like red-hot poker will change from yellow to red after it's been pollinated so the bee will move on.) This may or may not be a desirable feature to a grower who wants to be able to count on flowers staying a stable color at harvest time.

What does it mean, then, when we take what is basically a bouquet of sexual organs and expect them to stop behaving like sexual organs? We require flowers to live a long time after they've been cut; we want them to hold on to their pollen or not produce it at all; and we prefer them to have a scent that is more pleasing to us than it might be to a bee or a hummingbird. The supreme irony of cut flower breeding lies in the fact that we use all the science and technology available to us to make a flower stop acting like a flower. But no one can change the fact that a flower exists for just one purpose: to reproduce and die. Leslie Woodriff understood that, and he saw the magic in it.

Woodriff had been breeding lilies for decades before he came to Humboldt County under the terms of a business arrangement he made with a grower named Ted Kirsch, who was the first owner of what is now Sun Valley Floral Farms. Several years after Kirsch died, I met his daughter, Laura Dun. She and her husband, David, along with her mother, Eloise, have told me the story of Kirsch and Woodriff in bits and pieces over the years. (Kirsch died in 1996, just before Woodriff.) David remembers driving to Brookings, Oregon, in the early seventies with his future fatherin- law. "I guess I was invited in my capacity as the future family lawyer." He was just starting law school at the time. "Ted had this idea that he could make a deal with Leslie to buy his lilies and give the Woodriffs a job on the farm."

Ted Kirsch got his start growing daffodil bulbs in his backyard in Oregon around 1942. He was the high school agriculture teacher; the bulbs supplied a little extra income and gave the students something to do. Pretty soon he'd obtained some financial backing and expanded his operation, making the flower farm a full-time family enterprise. He eventually bought land in Arcata, California, and founded Sun Valley. By the time he and David took their drive up the coast, he was farming in Arcata full time.

Kirsch had known Leslie Woodriff for years. Everybody in the lily business knew him as a kind of crazy lily breeder who came up with wild hybrids that nobody thought were possible. "But the thing is," David told me, "the guy had no business sense. He never did make a dime off his lilies. He lived on this rundown farm with his wife, Ruth, and his daughter Winkey. Kirsch heard that he'd defaulted on a loan from the Small Business Administration and was about to lose his farm. "So we showed up at the Woodriffs' place, and it was immediately

clear to me that this is not going to work. Their place was falling down, everything was a mess-it just looked like a real can of worms to me. But Ted said, 'The lilies are wonderful. If someone could just harness their creativity and take care of the business side, this could really work.'"

David tried to talk him out of doing the deal, but there was no way to change his mind. Kirsch and Woodriff worked out an agreement, and soon the Woodriffs were on their way to Arcata. There's some confusion over how Woodriff's hybrid lily 'Star Gazer' came to be at Sun Valley-everybody I talked to had a different version of this story, each one more like a legend or a fairy tale than the last-but David and Laura remember it this way: When the Woodriffs arrived in Arcata, they brought with them Woodriff's hybridized lilies. Kirsch planted a field of these hybrids-they mostly weren't labeled, so he really had no idea what he'd bought or what they'd look like when they bloomed-but one day he walked out into the field and stood among all those downwardfacing lilies, and there was one red Oriental looking straight up at the sky. So he called it 'Star Gazer'. And that changed the lily business forever.

Leslie Woodriff's son George and his daughter Betty remember their father as a plainspoken, hardworking man who never wavered in his dedication to his lilies. He was a horticultural genius, they told me, who was ahead of his time. I know they'd shudder if they heard people describe their father or his greenhouse as "a mess," and I can't blame them-when I look at photographs of Woodriff, I see a tough but cheerful man who made his living with his hands. There doesn't seem to be anything particularly messy or crazy about him. Many of his colleagues in the world of lily breeding believed that Woodriff created such extraordinary hybrids mostly because he was fearless. Not crazy, exactly, just not bound by the rules that most lily breeders follow. He'd cross anything, even two lily species that were supposed to be incompatible. He was not methodical, he was not consistent, he was not precise or even sanitary. A grower who worked for him in the early 1980s said, "Part of the reason Leslie's lilies are so hardy and disease resistant is that they had to survive in his greenhouse. I've never seen such a mess. Viruses, bugs, flats of seedlings just piled on top of each other and crowded under benches where they didn't get any light or water-really, it was a situation where only the strong survived."


Excerpted from "Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful" by Amy Stewart. Copyright © 0 by Amy Stewart. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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