Jackie Mitchell and her daughter Jordan are no strangers to gardening. With their family, they run Battle River Berries, a popular place to pick berries and cherries. But in the last few years, they have added a new, less edible plant to their collection. Or rather, they have added six thousand. In 2008, the family became lily breeders.
They began the process of acquiring their breeding stock after hearing about Fred Fellner in The Western Producer. Fellner is a legend in the world of lilies, having cultivated lilies near Vermillion for seven decades, Fellner has been quoted, consulted and written up in a large number of gardening books. He also won the North American Lily Society's EH Wilson Award in 1995.
After starting a correspondence with Fellner in 2008, Mitchell and her daughter were asked if they were interested in becoming lily breeders. As Fellner was getting older, he had begun the search for the next generation to carry on his careful work. When Mitchell and four others were asked if they were interested in taking up his breeding stock, it was an easy choice to make.
"Opportunities like that don't really come around very often nowadayshe is just so excited that there's somebody else in a younger generation that can carry on his work," Mitchell told me over the phone. "It's a passion, I love lilies and they're my favourite flower."
The results of Fellner and Mitchell's careful cultivation are easy to see. Between Fellner's farm near Vermillion and Mitchell's near the Battlefords, the lilies have become hardy, sturdy and disease-resistant, returning year after year. At six foot three, it was unusual to be able to look a lily almost square in the eye, but I could with a few especially tall cultivars. Both Fellner and Mitchell have also bred for a high bud count, and many of the plants could expect a total of around 24 flowers. But the full scope of the variety was enormous. Lilies with maroon stems, enough leaves to look like a pineapple, lilies with twice the number of petals, flowers opening to the sky and to the ground, or petals that could be curled, straight, wide, fuzzy, freckled, striped
Speaking with the Mitchells, it was clear that the project was a labour of love first and a commercial venture second, though bulbs are for sale. She spoke about how her lilies were an extension of herself.
"You have your favourites, and you're picking for your own tastes. It's exciting because you're continuing on and adding to the vast array of lily breeding, having your personalities bred into your lilies."