Friday 20 July 2018

Isabella Preston and the Creelman lillies of the OAC

The postcard below, mailed in 1937, conveys a pleasant view of the Administration Building (now Johnston Hall), constructed only a few years earlier, with reflecting pond and the canon, Old Jeremiah, in the foreground.

The card was published by the Photogelatine Engraving Company of Ottawa, a prolific source of Guelph postcards in that era. (From the John Keleher collection.)

However, the most interesting feature of this postcard is the message on the back, sent by "M" to Mrs. Gerald Badke of Kitchener, Ontario:

55 Dundas Rd. Guelph // July 19/37 // Dear Sister.—Before I go to bed I want to write this to tell you that the Creelman Lilies are just out in perfection now and in case any of you wish to see them come this week. They are beautiful. I counted 1st on one stem with the buds to-day. I am tired to-night. We try Field Husbandry to-morrow. Love. M.
The "Creelman Lilies" refers to both one of the great success stories of the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) and one of its longest-standing mysteries.

As luck would have it, there is a photograph of the very lilies that M. was writing about:

This picture was published in the OAC Review (1937, v. 49, n. 8, p. 479), so very likely shows the bed of Creelman lilies—very plainly labelled—planted that year beside Zavitz Hall. (Courtesy of University of Guelph Library McLaughlin Archives, RE3 OAC A005037.) I hope that "M"s family went to see them.

First, to the success story. The "Creelman lily" (officially Lilium princeps x "George C. Creelman") was a hybrid of two lilies from southern China, L. regale and L. sargentiae. The crossing was made by Isabella Preston, a young horticulturalist working in the OAC greenhouses. In her book "Garden lilies" (1929, p. 110), she described the process as follows:

On July 20th, 1916, when I was attached to Mr. Crow’s Department at the Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph, Ont., I pollenized L. sargentiae (growing in the greenhouse) with L. regale. Three seedpods formed, the seed was sown in pots in the greenhouse and the seedlings began to germinate on January 15th, 1917. These were transplanted to a cold frame and bloomed well in 1919. It was named G.C. Creelman [the OAC President] by the Guelph Department in 1923.
Isabella Preston (1881–1965) herself was a crossing, a young English woman who had emigrated to Canada with her sister Margaret after their mother's death in 1912. She was determined to work in horticulture and the prior lack of professional, female horticulturalists did not dissuade her. Upon her arrival in Guelph, she immediately enrolled in the subject at the OAC.

(Isabella Preston. Courtesy of the Ontario Agricultural College.)

After a year's study, Miss Preston entered a self-study course and took up work full-time in the greenhouse headed by Professor James W. Crow. There she was introduced to the art and science of hybridization. Apparently enthralled, she read "all the books in the library" on the subject and began to experiment, with special attention to lilies. Both her talent and her hard work paid off handsomely.

The Creelman lily won immediate and universal praise. In 1939, Howard L. Hutt, Emeritus Professor of Horticulture at the OAC, recalled his initial response to the appearance of the lily (quoted in von Baeyer, 1987, p. 131):

I can well remember seeing their first bloom, four and five immense white flowers on sturdy stems about three feet tall. And I thought well here is a worth while new lily. But when I happened to be at the College a week later and saw two or three of the original plants at least five feet high and bearing fifteen blooms I felt like taking off my hat, even if I did not throw it up in the air.
In 1923, after four years of trials, the new Creelman lily was put on the market. It was a smash hit and eventually spread around the country and even overseas.

Like her new lily, Isabella Preston's career began to bloom. In 1920, she left the OAC for the Botanic Garden at the Central Experimental Farm at Ottawa. There, she developed many new botanic hybrids but remained best known for her work with lilies. As testimony to her reputation, von Baeyer (1987, p. 125) relates the following anecdote:

After World War II, a Japanese admiral was brought to the United States as part of a friendship promotion program. He was asked if there was any special attraction he would like to see—Niagara Falls perhaps? The admiral thanked his hosts very politely and then answered (in rough translation), "I would really like to travel to Canada to meet Miss Isabella Preston." He was a lily enthusiast.
In 1946, at age 65, Preston had retired from her long and productive official career. She spent a year in England but found that, like her flowers, she was no longer adapted to that climate. So, she returned to Canada and settled in Georgetown, Ontario where she kept a large garden in which Creelman lilies were likely a prominent feature.

Isabella Preston, 1957. Courtesy of the Isabella Preston Collection, Royal Botanical Gardens Archives.

Now, to the mystery. Creelman lilies remained a popular choice for gardens and special occasions for many years. Of course, there is the large bed on the OAC campus in 1937, shown above. In addition, news items from the Guelph region mention the flower in various connections. For example, it was used to decorate a home in Georgetown for a wedding that same year (Georgetown Herald, 11 August 1937):

Miss Ruth Evelyn Giffen, daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. John Giffen, of Ashgrove, became the bride of Howard C. Wrigglesworth, son of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Wrigglesworth, Ashgrove, at the home of her sister, Mrs. Elmer May, Hornby, on Saturday afternoon. Rev. B. Eyre, of Ashgrove United Church officiated. The home was decorated with pink and white gladiolus, white Creelman lilies and fern.
Then, there was the wedding of Muriel Ricketts, married at her parents' house on Grove Street in Guelph, in which Creelman lilies also featured prominently (Acton Free Press, 30 July 1942):
The house decorations were in pink and white, harmonizing prettily with the gowns of the bride and bridesmaid. Bouquets of Creelman lilies, roses and baby’s breath added to the charm of the home, while the wedding cake was attractively placed on the festive table with tall white tapers.
Creelman lilies continued to be grown by enthusiasts in the region. Special mention must be made of Mr. & Mrs. Arthur K. Thomas of Rockwood, who were well-known for their dedication to Creelman lilies throughout the 1950s. Indeed, the Acton Free Press gives a full report of his entry in the North American Lily Show in 1958 (24 July 1958):
Rockwood flower gardens specialize in Creelman lilies

Enthusiastic flower lovers, Mr. and Mrs. A.K. Thomas, Guelph St., Rockwood, took a special joy in their garden this past week for their George C. Creelman lilies, despite cool weather, began to bloom in time for the North American lily show, held in Hart House, Toronto.
The beautiful lilies thrive in the Thomas garden and many lily growers visit the spot, envious of the beautiful blooms. There are a dozen other lily varieties there as well as the Creelman but none are half as lovely as these splendid blooms.

25 years ago
Mr. Thomas bought his first clump over 25 years ago from William Harris. The great mass of thousands of fragrant flowers in the garden today have grown from that one plant.
Mr. Thomas recalls paying three dollars for it and thinking at the time that the price was somewhat high. Today, however, he feels it was very little to pay.
The lily was developed at the O.A.C. by Miss Isabella Preston and named after Dr. George C. Creelman.

Blooms specially packed
New at entering flowers in a show, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas found the idea exciting and full of interest. The blooms had to be packed with cotton to keep the petals clean.
The spikes cut for the show had to be chosen carefully. A tinge of frost bite on the leaves was one item that had to be watched for.
As Miss Preston and the Thomases frequented the same, local flower shows, it seems a safe bet that they were well known to one another. I imagine that Miss Preston was flattered.

However, mention of the Creelman lily falls away by the 1960s. The reason is obscure but is hinted at in Miss Preston's obituary in the Georgetown Herald (6 January 1966):

She continued working at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, crossing various strains of lilies. The well known George C. Creelman is an ancestor of most of the white tubular lilies that are so popular now. Crow’s Triumph is the other and was more favoured by florists.
It seems that the fashion in flowers moved on and the Creelman lily, like many a reigning monarch, was finally supplanted by its offspring.

Though the plant itself apparently vanished, knowledge of it did not fade entirely. In 2007, Alex Henderson, curator of living collections at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) in Burlington, Ontario, received a napkin with the words "George C. Creelman," "Isabella Preston," and "Allan Goddard" scrawled on it. The item was given to him by a colleague who had encountered Allan Goddard, Creelman's great-grandson, at a bar (Giaimo 2017). Henderson knew of the flower by reputation and looked for it in the archives but came up empty-handed. “We didn’t have it, but I went into our plant records, and we used to have it,” he said. On inquiring further, a similar story emerged from other nurseries both near and far. Though once extremely popular, specimens of the lily had not been kept anywhere.

Alex Henderson continued his search. In 2009, Rodger Tschanz from the University of Guelph thought he had some and gave Mr. Henderson some bulbs. These were duly grown and the flowers examined by expert botanists, who Mr. Henderson locked in a room with the plants for two hours. The determination rests on how well the flowers match written descriptions made by Isabella Preston and some early, hand-colored photographs. Their verdict: Close but not quite. The flowers may be near relatives of the Creelman but just not the same.

However, the story may yet have a happy ending. In July 2017, a caller phoned into the CBC Radio talk show Ontario Today ("CSI of horticulture," 24 July 2017) to solicit information from master gardener Ed Lawrence. Cynthia Culp phoned in from Bancroft to ask: How rare were her Creelman lilies? She explained that her grandmother had obtained them from a neighbour who worked at the University of Guelph and had purchased them at a University plant sale around 1950. Ms. Culp's grandmother grew them until she moved house in the 1990s, at which point Ms. Culp's mother brought them home, mentioning that the variety was "Creelman". In 2014, Cynthia Culp rescued the plants from her brother, who planned to sod over the garden.

As the lilies took hold in her garden, Ms. Culp searched on the Internet for current information on the variety. Frustrated in her search, she phoned in to the CBC's gardening show. She was advised that there was someone at the RBG who would be most anxious to hear from her. Alex Henderson politely asked her if she would share some of the plant material with the Royal Botanical Gardens. The answer was "yes."

These materials were duly transplanted and have been grown in pots at the RBG this year. This May, the lilies flowered with the results shown in the following, beautiful photographs:

(Courtesy of Dr. David A. Galbraith/Royal Botanical Gardens, Burlington, Ontario.)

The verdict? So far, so good. Alex Henderson holds the conclusion that these are Creelman lilies to be "tentatively correct." The final verdict will have to wait for at least another year, so that the plants can be grown outside and their normal habit of growth observed. He is cautiously optimistic that another season will put any doubts to bed.

So, it seems that Mr. Henderson's improbable search has borne fruit and Miss Preston's legacy is secured for future generations. I hope that, some day soon, the Creelman lily will grace the gardens of the University of Guelph and beyond once again!

Thanks to Alex Henderson and Dr. David A. Galbraith of the RBG for their kind responses to my queries about the status of the Creelman lily. Keep up the good work!