The Case of the George C. Creelman Hybrid Lily

The Case of the George C. Creelman Hybrid Lily May Finally Have Been Cracked

By Adam Carter · CBC News · CBC Ontario Today. July 24, 2017

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

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.”