Science in full bloom

In a field of lilies, a botanist's laboratory

(Published Aug 11, 2006, 3:45 p.m.)

By Charlotte Huntley / Contributork

Thousands and thousands of lilies fill the fields around Robert Griesbach's home. These are not the bright oranges that you see alongside the roads. Griesbach's lilies are pink, salmon and deep magenta. Some are white, yellow and lavender. Some blooms have ruffled edges; others are lined in white. A few plants are over six feet tall.

Griesbach, a botanist who taught at Du Paul University in Chicago for 34 years, specializes in plant genetics and plant physiology. While still an undergraduate, he started developing hybrid gladiolas and continued for 25 years. He introduced 125 varieties.

Now he works exclusively with lilies.

Griesbach works from dawn to dusk caring for his lilies. He spends hours weeding, selecting, crossing and tracking the hybrids as they bloom in early June until late July.

Griesbach, 82, remains agile. "That's the greatest benefit of work-the activity. And if you can have fun while doing it, that's all the better." His eyes twinkled as a smile appeared on his friendly, tanned face.

The science of his projects is not hard to understand. Every organism has hereditary factors; animals and humans have two sets of chromosomes in each body cell. This is called diploid. "The majority of plants are polyploidy, having more than two sets of chromosomes," Griesbach explained. In the course of his work, he aims to double the chromosomes of his lilies.

"Having double the number of chromosomes means you have double the number of genes, double the amount of DNA and in turn, with the different modes of inheritance, one has more variation, more combinations of genes at the polyploidy level than at the diploid level."

Griesbach breeds day lilies (Hemerocallis genus), which grow from seeds, and true lilies (Lilium genus), which grow from a bulb. There are over 100 different species of true lilies, but garden lilies are limited to few types of true lilies because of the specific environments that they need to grow. One of these is the Asiatic lily.

"Asiatic lilies are easy to grow. They are completely cold resistant. And they are more frost resistant in the spring." Griesbach has doubled the chromosomes in his Asiatic lilies, resulting in larger roots, stems and petals, making them more durable. "They don't need any care and they are very beautiful, with great variation in shape, size-some face up, some face sideways, some face down, some are pure, some are spotted."

Another species is the trumpet species-they have trumpet-shaped flowers-one of which is the Easter lily. Most trumpet lilies are heat- and cold-tolerant, as well as virus-resistant, but the Easter lily is not very hardy, although the Easter lily has been hybridized for different colors like pink and yellow. "We've developed a kind where the ground color is white and the petal is rimmed pink-a picotee-type pattern."

Griesbach chooses day lilies that produce lots of blooms over a period of time, typically for 45 days. Griesbach describes day lilies that grow along the roadsides as being native to China, having reddish or tawny pigment superimposed on the gold. True wild day lilies are yellow to gold. For the last 100 years breeders have been trying to tone down the yellow and bring out other colors in day lilies, such as pure pink, lavender, black and red. "Hopefully, maybe in 50 years or so, there will be even a blue lily."

Griesbach raises the new lilies in a greenhouse, about 10,000 at a time, keeping track of each flat and each plant. As the plants grow, they remain in the greenhouse where temperatures reach 105-110 degrees; this is to verify the plants that can experience extreme heat and survive.

In the fall, Griesbach plants an entire flat together, making sure each flat is placed in the ground according to its number. Griesbach will spray them if a fungus attacks, but for the most part, they are left to play out their characteristics and the weaker plants die off. "No matter how beautiful a plant might be, unless it is cold- or heat-tolerant, we're not interested.

"When the temperature gets to about zero or below without snow cover, the plant must be very, very hardy in order to survive," Griesbach said. The payoff is when the survivors are reproduced and the valued characteristics are propagated.

"I'm not at all involved in commercial ventures," Griesbach said. He sends selections to the Netherlands via a lily broker, who in turn commissions growers to propagate them to sell them all over the world. Others go to the Ukraine and still others go to Canada as well as places around the United States, from Arkansas to Michigan.

Nurseries and home gardeners appreciate the hardy plants and the variety in color. "They always like to get something no one else has," Griesbach said.

Griesbach and his wife, Mary Lou, lives in Richland Township on five acres of "some of the finest soil in the world."

Griesbach and his wife have five children-Rob, Deb, Jim, Don and Barbara, and eight grandchildren. He named one yellow lily Gracie Buttercup after a granddaughter. "She's very proud of it."

Producing a new lily category is not easy. Griesbach pointed out the Leslie Woodriff, a category introduced in 1978 that is in the North American Lily Society's Hall of Fame and was a cross between two double chromosome hybrids, Black Beauty and White Henryi. Leslie Woodruff pollinated 500 flowers of Black Beauty with pollen from White Henryi.

Griesbach wiped pollen on to the stigmatic surface to illustrate how the new hybrid was pollinated. "There were 500 different flowers and only five seeds," he said.

"You have to be very patient and persistent."

The author, a frequent contributor to The Week, lives in Sugar Creek Township.




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