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.
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.”