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Lily bulbs from seed

Growing lilies from seed is a long term project. You make your breeding crosses during the first summer, then collect and prepare the resulting seed that winter, for sowing in March of the following year. Indoor gro-lights or a heated greenhouse is a must, as only a small percentage of hybrid seed will germinate if sowed directly outdoors. Since each seedling is unique, it can take two to five years of additional growth before a grower is able to evaluate the first flowers, and make selections for clonal (vegetative) propagation. The easiest hybrid lilies to produce are between crosses of lilies of the same type; Asiatic lily to Asiatic lily, Trumpet to Trumpet, etc. Interspecific crosses are much more difficult, but members of the North American Lily Society can provide valuable assistance if you wish to embark on this fascinating hobby. To avoid cross pollination when producing new hybrid seed of any plant, you need to strict sanitary conditions; from the collection of pollen grains produced by the father plant, to manually fertilizing the stigma of the mother plant. A serious hybridizer (plant breeder) keeps strict records of all crosses so that he/she may go back and repeat any combinations that produced desired results. For our purposes, however, we’ll start with seed that is open-pollinated, or has naturally occurred on a stem. (Large photo is of Tetraploid Trumpet seedlings 60 days after germination, small inset shows newly germinated pure Trumpet seed - click on photos to enlarge them.)

Step #1. After the earliest blooms have started to fade and the pods have begun to swell, deadhead (cut off) the remaining blooms to encourage the plant to put its energy into producing seed. Leaving only one or two pods per stem is less stressful to your bulb.

Step #2. Pick the pods in September, when yellow and slightly soft, but before they begin to crack open. If heavy rain threatens or freezing temperatures are likely before the pods have ripened, pick the upper 1/3 of the stem. Place in a vase, changing the water daily. When the pods are dry, remove seeds and air dry on paper towels. When held to the light, you should be able to see a tiny embryo in each seed. Discard any chaff (seeds without embryos). This will be hybrid seed, not identical to either parents, but whereby new cultivars (named varieties) are created.

Step #3. Sow seed an inch apart in a flat or pot, covering with 1/2 inch of sterile, finely textured potting soil. You may start seed immediately after harvest in a greenhouse or under lights, or wait until spring and sow in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse. Direct sowing outdoors is not recommended. Seedling losses can be very high due to fungus infections and/or uneven moisture levels.

Step #4. Seedlings need light 14 to 16 hours per day, even moisture, plus diluted liquid fertilizer every 14 days. When bulblets are the size of filberts and have a good root structure, transplant outdoors in late spring (harden off first), or grow in individual pots until planting in the garden during October. Two to three more years of growth outdoors is necessary before the bulbs are mature.

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