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
"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
"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
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