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10-year search for elusive lily sparks CSI horticulture cold case

An obsession has driven Alex Henderson’s life for the last decade, like Captain Ahab’s elusive white whale — except this obsession has pink stripes and is reportedly quite fragrant.

The case of the George C. Creelman hybrid lily may finally have been cracked

Could Cynthia Culp's lilies be the rare Creelman lily? (Cynthia Culp/Ontario Today)

An obsession has driven Alex Henderson's life for the last decade, like Captain Ahab's elusive white whale — except this obsession has pink stripes and is reportedly quite fragrant.

Henderson, the curator of living collections at Burlington, Ont.'s Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG), has been trying to crack the mystifying cold case of the George C. Creelman hybrid lily.

It's a very specific type of flower, first bred decades ago by Canada's "Queen of Ornamental Horticulture," Isabella Preston. Henderson says the flower is a massively important part of our nation's history, and one that many people in his industry knew — yet for years, he simply could not find one. It had all but vanished from Canada, coast to coast.

"Truly, this became an international quest for me," Henderson said.

Working at the RBG, Henderson is no stranger to questions about plant identification. One of the gardens' roles is to conserve the country's rarest botanical species, as a kind of archive or zoo of Canada's plant world.

It's the chase — the mystery around the story. That's what's so compelling.- David Galbraith,head of science at the RBG

That's why he was unfazed 10 years ago, when a colleague passed him the name Creelman lily, scrawled on the back of a napkin.

Someone had passed it on at a party, hoping they could track one down. That someone was Allan Goddard, the great grandson of George C. Creelman himself. Creelman was once the president of the University of Guelph's agricultural college.

"I just thought it would be in our collection," Henderson said.

It wasn't. Little did he know at that moment, he was tugging on the threads of a mystery that stretched all the way back to 1919, and one of Canada's first plant breeders.

"This was my first venture into the lily unknown."

A pioneer in the plant world

Isabella Preston is famous in horticultural circles, as the first in the country to try to hybridize plants for Canadian culture and climates in the 1900s. Before then, it was all plant species from the U.S. or Europe.

But Preston was a woman who jumped headfirst into a man's world, looking to make a name for herself, said David Galbraith, the RGB's head of science. "She followed her passion," he said.

"Her whole intention was to breed plants that were suited to Canada's culture."

Isabella Preston is considered a pioneer in Canadian horticulture. (University of Guelph/Ontario Agricultural College)

The Ontario Agricultural College calls Preston a "self-taught expert," and marveled at the beauty of the Creelman lily, calling it "magnificent."

But for the life of him, Henderson couldn't find one. He kept asking around, and kept getting the same answer.

"Why is everyone telling me they know this plant, but can't find it?"

The gardens had a brush with the flower back in 2009, where a person sent in a plant, believing it was the mysterious lily. However, after examination, Henderson decided it was likely an "inferior varietal clone of the true George C. Creelman," when checked against Preston's handwritten description of the plant, which the RBG has on file.

The trail seemed cold — until last week, when Cynthia Culp called in to Ontario Today's gardening show with master gardener Ed Lawrence, asking about a lily she had growing in her garden, called the Creelman lily.

'It made my hair stand up'

When Henderson heard about the call, he was floored. "It made my hair stand up," he said. "I've been looking for this plant on and off for ten years. It's become part of my life story."

The two finally connected and spoke about it today on Ontario Today.

Culp says the original flowers were given to her grandmother around 1950 by a woman who picked them up at a University of Guelph plant sale.

"If it wasn't for my mom telling me the name, I wouldn't know they were a rare lily," Culp said.

She describes the flowers as a beautiful white lily, with an outer bud that has a lot of pink stripes before they open. They grow to be between three and five feet tall, and have narrow leaves.

"When they open, they're very fragrant," she said.

Alex Henderson (left) and David Galbraith (right) from the Royal Botanical Gardens are hoping they have made a breakthrough in the search for the mysterious George C. Creelman lily. (Adam Carter/CBC)

And with that, Henderson may have found the end of his quest.

He says that Culp's description is "very promising," when compared to Preston's original description — but he can't yet know for sure. If Culp brings a bulb from her plants to the RBG, horticulturalists will need to watch it flower, and cross reference exactly what happens with Preston's notes to be certain.

"By flowering time this time next year, we could try to identify this plant against what Isabella Preston wrote, and we could finally put a close to this mystery once and for all," he said.

So why, after all this, is this specific lily so important? Henderson and Galbraith say it's a combination of art and storytelling.

"It's a snapshot into our species and how we value beauty," Henderson said.

"And it's the story, we're storytelling creatures. Everything is a story," Galbraith said.

"It's the chase — the mystery around the story. That's what's so compelling."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

With files from Ontario Today