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Lily Bulbs

"Oh, Tiger Lily, I wish you could talk."
"We can talk, when there is anybody worth talking to."

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass

Some of us judge other people. Diane Engelsdorfer judges lilies. Petals crepey? Color muddied or pollen-stained? Flowers (God forbid) overlapping on the stem? Walking from table to table with five senior judges, she duly notes each flaw. But deep inside, she's paying closer attention to the creatures' beauty: "the curving, like folded drapery; the satiny texture; the different ruffles; the way light plays on them."

Engelsdorfer fell in love with lilies eight years ago, when she and her husband moved into a sprawling old brick house with a backyard of gravel and concrete slabs. He pried out the concrete; she ordered grass and so many tulips that the company sent a bonus pack of lily bulbs: "One was a clear yellow, the other deep orange and so prolific I must have hundreds of its bulbs by now." Hooked, she went to the Regional Mid-America Lily Society's autumn bulb sale, arriving there three hours after they opened. They'd already sold out.

Engelsdorfer joined the society just to make sure she'd hear about the next sale but found herself so fascinated by lilies' various shapes and sizes that she started studying to be a lily judge. She'd face 100 technical questions about everything from "embryo rescue" (a procedure used to clone two very different exotic lilies by soaking the hybrid in a bath of proper nutrients) to classification: Was the lily outgoing, upfacing, pendant, recurved, flat-faced, bowl-shaped or trumpet? New hybrids complicated the categories considerably -- Orientpets, for example, are crosses between Oriental lilies and trumpet lilies. "Some trumpets open all the way up and look more star-shaped," remarks Engelsdorfer, "and the Oriental is a wide-open flat shape, more like an orchid, so the Orientpet is a kind of trumpet that flares out more widely." But subtly.

"The species lily is the original wild lilies that all of these hybrids came from," she explains. "But since we have been able to do tissue culture and embryo culture, starting in the 1970s, the variety is unbelievable." A grower creates a solution of agar (seaweed gelatin), adds sugar and fertilizer, and cuts up little pieces of the plant, especially the meristem tissue at the tip of the plant, which tends to divide more. "Lilies reproduce by making more bulbs underground, and because the tiny bulblets are meristem tissue, too, they divide rapidly. You can take one bulb and make thousands of clones, rather than having to go through growing season after growing season."

The results span the rainbow, every color but blue, some two-toned, some "spreckled" with large and small dots, some painted with the delicate brushstrokes of Asian calligraphy. There are swirled lilies and striped lilies and lilies of every possible personality, from what Engelsdorfer calls "Lily Tomlin lilies with spots all over their faces, bobbing and swaying," to "Princess Grace lilies," austere, clean-lined and coolly beautiful. The real names reek of romance, from Scheherezade to Anastasia to the mysterious Silk Road that never opens all the way. "Kiss" lilies offer doubled blooms; Sorbonne, Louvre and other Orientals carry heavy perfume.

Why haven't St. Louisans been planting these beauties all along? "They have this totally undeserved reputation for being difficult," shrugs Engelsdorfer. "We actually have a great climate for them. As a general rule of thumb, the farther inland you go, the sooner things bloom, because our ground warms up earlier. So if you plant both early- and later-blooming varieties, you can have four solid months of bloom, from mid-April to the end of July. And you can plant lilies among shallow-rooted perennials or shrubbery," she adds, "as long as they can get their heads up into the sun." She smiles, eyes distant. "There is nothing better than pink lilies coming up out of a sea of salvia, or dark-blue delphinium around an orange or yellow lily. They're wonderful for cottage gardening. Individually they make a statement, and if you mass them, you have spires going up anywhere from 3-8 feet."

St. Louis is seeing more lilies of late: The bulb gardener at the Missouri Botanical Garden took a shine to them, and the Mid-America Regional Lily Society set up a display in the Kemper Home Gardening Center. The society's past president filled one of the center islands of Midland with lilies, and the 75 or so members have showplace yards massed with exotic varieties. They're already thinking 2004, when St. Louis will host the national lily show.

Engelsdorfer clutches her lily-judging handbook, nervous at the thought. Last year in Clackamas, Ore., the North American Lily Society held its 53rd annual international lily show, and after they closed the doors to the public, she trailed along with the senior judges. Only halfway through her three-year apprenticeship, she kept mum while the senior judges announced their opinions, but then she was allowed to give her own. "You're looking for condition -- any bug bites or dirt or pollen smears -- and vigor," she explains. "You don't want warped petals, and you don't want the flowers touching; you want them separate, distinct and airy. Is the color pure, does it feel nice and firm, or is it tissuey?

"The national best-in-show was a little dusty-pink Asiatic called Gypsy," she recalls. "It was exquisite, not a mark on it, and 48 flower buds were opened on that stem. It beat out other flowers that were bigger and flashier and had more substance or more brilliant clear color. Then, after all the judging was done, we noticed that one of the buds wasn't opening the way it was supposed to -- so we looked more closely. It had gotten broken off, and the grower had stuck it back on with a pin!"

The grower was so deft, not a single judge noticed. Confronted after the fact, he "just smiled and didn't say anything," recalls Engelsdorfer. "He knew it was perfect when he brought it in, and he'd transported that lily 500 miles across the country, so then to have somebody walk by and break it before the judging ..." Unbearable. Lilies might not toil or weep, but their growers do. Of course, some are tricksters in their own right, renowned for their efforts to outfox the judges by gilding their lilies mechanically. To foil such frauds, the society makes crisp and copious rules: "Entries are the property of the exhibitor. Anthers and pollen may be removed only by the owner or with the owner's written permission. Only true lilies having scaly bulbs permitted." Etcetera, etcetera.

Lilies, after all, are serious symbols. Considered by some to be the oldest and loveliest domesticated flower (with roses a tough rival), they return from their mysterious hidden source every year, suggesting resurrection and eternal life. In the pious Middle Ages, the Madonna lily became the Christian emblem of the Blessed Virgin's assumption into heaven, its pure white petals signifying her spotless body, its golden anthers her soul glowing with heavenly light.

More prosaically, the Elizabethans mixed the juice of the lily bulb with barley meal as a cure for dropsy.

But in St. Louis we're finally learning to appreciate them for themselves.

-- Jeannette Batz

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