Lush lilies in the limelight

Dutch Lily Days 2023. Photo: Rolf van Koppen Fotografie.

The Dutch lily industry ran its 11th open house in the second week of June when it opened its doors to breeders, bulb farmers, cut lily growers, trade, and press. More than 3,000 lily professionals enjoyed going behind the scenes to witness the incredible transition the Dutch lily has undergone over the past decade. The passion and innovative entrepreneurship shown by the industry were just what the sector needed after a three-year break due to Covid-19.

Now in its 11th year, the Dutch Lily Days is a great way of showing the diversity of lilies available on the global market and how the industry is creating the lilies of the future through lengthy breeding and selection work.

Running across four days, the open-door event started with an official opening inside Van Zanten Flower Bulbs’s monumental building in Hillegom on 6 June. The ceremony coincided with the launch of a new range of pollen-free, single-flowering Orientals selling under the Liber Lilies brand. This year, Dutch bulb farmers began producing the bulbs, with the first Liber cut lilies anticipated to enter the market in 2024.
Over the past 13 years, Van Zanten Flower Bulbs and De Jong Lelies have carried out joint research to provide a solution for two major issues surrounding the world’s fourth most-traded cut flower: pollen stains and the strong scent of its majestic and photogenic blooms.

The Dutch Lily Days 2023 opening ceremony happened inside Van Zanten Flower Bulbs’s monumental building in Hillegom on 6 June. Left to right: Natasja van Angeren; Royal Van Zanten, Wijnand van der Kooij of De Jong Lelies; and floral wholesaler/keynote speaker Jan de Boer.

Not the first pollen-free lilies

Touting Van Zanten’s Liber portfolio as the world’s first pollen-free lilies would be what Italians call a ‘commedia del arte’ as the first pollen-free specimens such as the Orientals ‘Tiara’ and ‘Trofea’ made their debut more than two decades ago.

Also, pollen-free is not only the domain for Orientals; the virgin white OT-hybrid ‘Le Pristine’, a breed of De Vletter & Den Haan and showstopper at the Dutch Lily Days, does not shed its pollen either. The same applies to the double-flowering and pollen-free Roselily, although the latter and the more classical, single-flowered Libers are worlds apart.

Hans Damen, commercial manager at Van Zanten Flower Bulbs BV, puts it this way, “Pollen-free happened mostly incidentally. This time, Van Zanten Flower Bulbs and De Jong Lelies are the first to launch a complete line of pollen-free lilies, including the seven primary colours that lay the groundwork for a more targeted lily breeding.”

Analysing the Liber range in close detail, what stands out prominently is the colour white as seen in Liber ‘Snow’, Liber ‘Joy’ and Liber ‘Sky Master’. Its omnipresence can be easily explained, considering that the colour white across all lily groups is a firm favourite with consumers worldwide. But the Liber trio in white is also a technical matter.

For example, growing lily-cut flowers in a climate-controlled Dutch greenhouse is an energy-intensive business, vulnerable to costly energy price shocks. At the same time, lilies grown for the USA market in an unheated greenhouse in Colombia may be sensitive to dropping temperatures.

In both cases, lily-cut flower forcers will look for a white Liber that can be grown at lower temperatures. Damen elaborates, “This is why we are currently setting up Liber trials across different continents, testing twice 2,000 Liber lilies over two seasons. The goal is to find out which variety is adaptable to which growing conditions, dependant on the geographical location, growing season, and growing systems, either in soil or in substrates.”

The colour white is a firm favourite among lily aficionados worldwide.

Bursting with symbolism

Today, commercial cut lily growing is a global affair with Europe (the Netherlands), the USA, China, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Colombia, Mexico, and Costa Rica widely recognised as cut flower production hotbeds. But before the second half of the last century, the flower lived a more seclusive and esoteric life, tucked away in farm yards and cloister gardens. Here, it thrived for medicinal and ornamental purposes.

As one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, the genus comprising between 80-100 species and native to the temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere, the bulb flower bursts with symbolism. For example, the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) is frequently depicted in paintings of the Virgin Mary. And legend has it that Mary’s spouse, Saint Joseph, was chosen from among other men by the blossoming of his staff like a lily. Likewise, the biblical passage, ‘The just man shall blossom like the lily’, is applied to St Joseph in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church for his feast day, March 19.

In China, lilies are the perfect wedding flower as it is called 百合 in Chinese, which is pronounced as băi hé. Phonetically, these characters are reminiscent of the Chinese proverb, 百年好合 (Băinián hăo hé), meaning ‘happy union for one hundred years’. Lilies are still popular with Chinese consumers, although less used for weddings of the younger generations.

Lilies Rise to economic prominence

The Netherlands is a powerhouse across all disciplines: lily breeding, lily bulb farming, cut lily production, and export sales.

In 2022, Dutch exporting companies shipped 1.2 billion lily bulbs outside Europe, with China (271 million bulbs), Colombia (133 million bulbs) and Vietnam (117 million bulbs) being their biggest purchasers.

Various factors helped the flower’s rise to economic prominence. In the 1970s and 1980s, breeders in the USA began crossbreeding lilies. The year 1974 marked a watershed moment when Leslie Woodriff from California launched what until today is the world’s most well-known lily cultivar, ‘Stargazer’, an Oriental featuring deep pink flowers edged in white and elegantly recurving petals.

Dutch bulb exporters and auction-based floral wholesalers quickly grabbed the commercial value of ‘Stargazer’ and a swath of other commercial lily varieties from across the big pond.
Damen recalls, “Royal Van Zanten’s lily business started in an era when the area planted to lily bulbs in the Netherlands only spanned 150ha. In the beginning, we sourced new cultivars from abroad, but soon Dutch breeding work laid the groundwork of what is today a blossoming industry featuring hundreds of Dutch lily varieties.”

Initially, crosses between genotypes of the three commercially most important lily groups, Lilium longiflorum, Asiatics, and Orientals, turned out to be a daunting task as interspecific crossing barriers emerged. Then, Wageningen University began applying several pollination techniques and hormone treatments to bypass these barriers. Their groundbreaking research helped to flatten the red carpet for new stars in the international lily arena.

Meanwhile, researchers gave growers better insights into the causes of flower bud abortion in winter production of ‘Enchantment’ or ‘Connecticut King’ and how additional lighting could help remediate this problem. Post-harvest and storage technologies progressed the industry further, while improved cultivation methods allowed lily bulb farmers to achieve better yields.

Damen says: “The sector’s more recent game changers include the first-ever pollen-free series in single-flowered Orientals plus a range of double-flowered lilies available in different series. Our Lucky series, for example, comprises four cultivars to which two standalone whites and one pink have been added. The bottom line of the Dutch Lily Days event in June was that important lily-producing countries such as China have been cut off from the rest of the world by strict pandemic border restrictions. International customers were astounded to see the incredible transformation the Dutch lily has undergone.”

Lilium ‘Hulk’ is an artisan cultivar.

A complex, multidisciplinary activity

Although it is often a thousands-of-mile return journey for attendees from all corners of the world, the show was a great way to see tried-and-tested varieties such as good old pink oriental ‘Sorbonne’, the yellow OT ‘Conca d’Or’, the pink OT ‘Table Dance’, the red OT ‘Touchstone’, along with artisan varieties such as ‘Tintoretto’, the incredible ‘Hulk’, and ‘Black Ship’.

Lily breeding is a complex, interdisciplinary activity, evolving around ‘less is more’. The great lily creators, who deserve credit for having enrichened the industry with new, better, healthier, showier, higher-yielding lily varieties – undertake thousands of crossings but nearly throw away the same amount of seedlings each year. Eventually, only a few seedlings with more than promising traits will make it to the top.

The breeding process is also painstakingly intensive, and the average time for varietal development is as high as ten years. It is similar to the stage gate used in project management, with a promising seedling going through distinct stages. It is separated by decision points (or gates) with multiple departments (plant pathology, molecular, logistics, marketing), each giving their input.

By the time a variety is ready for its pre-commercial launch and testing, the breeder is pretty sure about its market value. And he better is as the average life for a successful variety is around ten years. Eventually, not more than ten per cent of the breeder’s ‘chosen ones’ will enter the market backed by a ‘reasonable amount of available bulbs’.

Breeding begins by deciding which crosses to make, a challenging, analytical job as a breeder manages numerous lines of genetic material. Once the lilies are crossed, the seeds will be sown inside a greenhouse. The germination time varies. Depending on the species and hybrids, reaching the flowering stage can take two to four years.

“Typically, we grow two batches of 1,000 bulbs, each of which is subsequently trialled in the greenhouse and the open field. If they have passed this test, the lily crop with the most promising traits is ready for multiplication through tissue culture. Bulblets of between 5-7mm in size then arrive by plane from Indian or Indonesian laboratories to acclimatise in a Dutch greenhouse. That is, soilless, in a growing medium to keep the bulb stock clean.

The next year, bulbs are planted outside using different plots of land; the year after, they spend another summer season in the field to grow into the bulbs the commercial bulb farmers use for scaling and grow into mature bulbs (while bulb producers may also use bulbils or offsets growing from the parent plants. These can be removed and replanted to grow a new lily crop).

Family gathering

On the surface, the annual Dutch Lily Days has the semblance of a family gathering, celebrating the industry’s core values, such as togetherness, passion, and ambition. Visitors of the Dutch Lily Days typically praise the entrepreneurs’ openness to sharing knowledge and research findings, the venues’ relaxed atmosphere and the premium feel.

Boundaries within lily markets are dissolving, so the Dutch lily sector is highly interconnected. Breeding companies, for example, depend on each other genetics, and a bulb exporter’s portfolio will typically include cultivars from different breeders.

And the sector is remarkedly unified when problems arise affecting the entire lily value chain. This happens when a new pest or disease emerges, and borders for lily bulbs risk being temporarily closed. Joining forces is also helpful when environmentalists scrutinise the industry for the umpteenth time. In such an event, the industry is quick to stand shoulder to shoulder and act and react as a unified voice.

‘Together we stand strong’ is no luxury, considering that chemical crop protection in lily bulb farming has been and remains a topical issue in the lily industry and Dutch society. Just a few days after Dutch Lily Days, a Dutch Noord-Nederland Court ruled that a lily bulb farmer in the province of Drenthe must stop using chemicals, arguing that substantial research indicates that a number of used crop protection products can be linked to neurologic diseases such as Parkinson and Alzheimer.

Not only did the judge prioritise the health of residents above the profitability of a lily bulb farmer, but it also overruled the Dutch Board for the Authorisation of Plant Protection Products and Biocides (Ctgb), whose primary task is to assess whether plant protection products and biocidal products are safe for humans, animals and the environment in accordance with international agreements and criteria laid down in legislation. So, understandably the Royal General Bulb Growers’ Association KAVB has appealed against the judgement.

OT hybrid ‘Touchstone’, a Mak Breeding breed, was awarded Best Lily in the 2022 Lily League. This award-winning lily features giant purple-plum flowers.

A fine line between collaboration and competition

For all the images of a close-knit lily family, there is also a different reality, with a world of product offerings protected and marketed via exclusive partnerships, licenses, gentlemen’s agreements and business alliances. That is more often than not perched on a fine line between collaboration and competition.

A prime example is the Roselily brand. When De Looff Innovation discovered the first double flowering Orientals at the turn of the century, it decided to sell the exclusive propagation rights to the Roselily Foundation comprising bulb exporters Van den Bos Flowerbulbs and Zabo, and Dutch growers Moerman Lilies, Herman de Jong and Van Schie with the first two producing Roselily cut flowers and De Jong dedicated to potted Roselily.

‘Belonica’ and ‘Fabiola’ represented the first generation of Roselilies in 2011. Twelve years later, the brand has grown into what is today a collection of nearly 62 stunningly double-flowering, pollen-free, and subtly fragrant Orientals. Purchasing manager Rob Verbraeken at Van den Bos Flowerbulbs (with a 90 per cent value market share in lilies) points to the pure white Roselily ‘Nadia’, of which currently only 10,000 bulbs are available this year. Petal colour-wise, newcomer Roselily ‘Dalinda’ is reminiscent of the iconic ‘Starfighter’ and its parent ‘Stargazer’ but then with double-flowered looks. Roselily ‘Joella’ is particularly eye-catching, combining medium-sized buds with blooms in lemon, cream and white hues.

Over the years, breeders have tried to replicate Roselily with various successes in series, semi-series and stand-alone.

Rooijakkers Breezand’s assortment, for example, features double-flowered Orientals such as ‘Broken Heart’, ‘Distant Drum’ and ‘My Wedding’; the Lily Company has its Lotus series, while Vletter&Den Haan has been very productive in creating more than 40 double-flowered and stand-alone Orientals and OTs for compact potted lily production or large-stemmed ‘event’ lilies. Royal Van Zanten says their double, pollen-free Lucky Lilies line is here to stay. It comprises the pinkish ‘Lucky Angel’, ‘Lucky Queen’ and ‘Lucky One’, with the white ‘Lucky Ice’ – soon to be added.

Double-flowered and pollen-free LA

At the Dutch Lily Days, each company understandingly puts its own portfolio first. Van den Bos Flowerbulbs will praise the competitor’s Liber lilies but will also question as to how to communicate the pollen-free message to end-consumers. Because consumers can clearly see the pollen, how can it be clear that it will not ripen and drop? A genuine Roselily ambassador, Van den Bos Flowerbulbs will also tell you that double-flowered lilies will dress the future lily landscape.
The news for the moment is the first-ever double-flowered, pollen-free LAs, created in association with De Vries and Laan Flora. PBRs for the yellow ‘Crosscourt’ and ‘Backhand’, red ‘Caddy’ and the orange ‘Deuce’ and ‘Forehand’ are pending, with a limited volume of bulbs to be harvested by the end of this year. Verbraeken says the line is very promising and will be selling under a yet not to be disclosed brand, grouping versatile double-flowered LAs for use in mono bouquets, arrangements and retail bouquets.

As dark as night, Lilium ‘Black Ship’.

Cut lilies

The major global flows of cut lilies are between the Netherlands and the EU, Vietnam and Japan, China and Japan, and Central/South America and the USA. Dutch cut lily growers grow mostly for traditional wholesale and retail markets; Colombian producers target the UK retail market and USA mass-market customers, while Vietnam and China export their cut lilies to traditional wholesale and retail customers in Japan.

Over the past two decades, Dutch lily growers have expanded their businesses to benefit from economies of scale. According to Royal FloraHolland, the Netherlands currently has an area of 190ha dedicated to growing cut lilies. The Dutch cut lilies combined produce approximately 350 million stems in a single year.

Putting the relationship between Dutch lily-cut flower forcers and Dutch bulb exporters under a magnifying glass, it is interesting to see how the first have increasingly become the bulb exporter’s competitors.

Consider that before the turn of the century, Italy, France, and Spain still hosted a large contingent of cut lily growers producing for the local market and purchasing their bulbs from Dutch exporters. Europe was firmly ranked as the top export destination for Dutch lily bulbs back then.

This situation changed dramatically with the rise of a new generation of Dutch cut lily producers, increasingly dominated by large grower alliances boasting extremely competitive prices, an incredibly wide assortment, quality products and just-in-time delivery. Ordered today, let’s say, a floristry chain in Paris or a wholesaler in Rome receives his Dutch lilies the next day, often much quicker than those grown in their direct vicinity.

As the viability of growing lilies in European countries other than the Netherlands is further questioned, Dutch lily bulb exporters continue to lose market share in Europe. Most of them explain that while Europe was initially the export destination Number One in some cases, it is now their smallest. And no, Dutch lily-cut flower growers do not source their bulbs from bulb exporting companies but source their planting material directly from bulb farmers or grow the bulbs themselves through contract farming.

Lily bulb farming

Within the global lily market, lily bulb farming occupies a kind of ‘status aparte’. The commercial production of bulbs sold to cut lily growers requires a cool environment. For this reason, most bulbs used for cut-flower production are grown in the Netherlands, France (Longiflorums in the Bordeaux area), Chile and New Zealand.

Botanically speaking, lilies, of course, are bulbous perennials. Bulbs and the Netherlands are intrinsically linked, with tulips arguably being the most iconic bulb flower and Dutch landmark. Tulip bulb farming is geographically concentrated in the sandy area between Leiden and Haarlem and the clayish soils of North Holland. However, the production of lily bulbs has moved to inland provinces such as Groningen, Drenthe, Limburg and Noordoostpolders, where humus-rich soil is available.

A lily bulb crop is sensitive to a range of pests and diseases, including Botrytis, aphids, Phytium, PLAM-V, Fusarium, and nematodes. As such, demand for virgin land is constant.

Lily bulb production requires both intensive and extensive rotational management. Harvest in the Netherlands typically begins in October and finishes in mid-December, depending on the weather conditions. After harvest, fields are planted with a mixture of green manure crops. The fields are managed over the next six years for oignon starter plant production or forage.

In a single year, between 80 to 100 farmers grow around 1,5 billion lily bulbs on a combined planting area spanning 4,500 to 5,000 hectares. The value of Dutch lily bulb farming at the farm gate level is €225 million. Depending on the variety/species, one hectare may yield between 500,000 to 600,000 bulbs. Revenues of €50,000 /ha are possible depending on the variety and how green-thumbed a bulb farmer is.

In determining the bulb price, the bulb circumference is leading. Naturally, the bigger the bulb, the more buds in commercial cut lily growing and the higher the bulb price. The bud number tends to be indicated by the usable bulb size, where the accepted norm for an LA-hybrid is a 12/14 bulb size with a minimum of three flowers. More generally speaking, bulb producers grow smaller sizes for mass-market lilies frequently incorporated in bouquets. Bigger bulb sizes are needed to fulfil the florist and event planner’s demand for show-stopping lilies.

Apart from counter seasonal lily bulb production in Chile and New Zealand’s southern island – to provide Dutch flower forcers with fresh lily bulbs year-round – lily bulb farming is a typical Dutch affair involving arable crop growers, cattle, and dairy farmers.

Lily bulbs can be a profitable crop. Still, the number of lily bulb producers is dwindling as fewer growers are willing to constantly serve as the scapegoat for environmental pollution. They feel that activists do not focus on the crux of the matter and frequently overlook their sound entrepreneurship, including significant reduction of chemicals, use of biopesticides and biostimulants, the maintenance of green cover of land along watercourses, planting catch crops and green manures, regular crop scouting and smart water management

Lily bulb trade is frequently modelling on supply contracts between bulb producers and the Netherlands’s five major lily bulb exporting companies: Van den Bos Flowerbulbs, De Jong Lelies, Onings, VWS, Steenvoorden, Boots Flowerbulbs, Bot Flowerbulbs, Zabo, GAV and P. Aker. But lines between bulb farming, trade and breeding can be blurred as breeders such as Royal Van Zanten, Vletter Den Haan, De Jong Lelies, and World Breeding predominantly focus on breeding while they also grow and supply bulbs.

Wijnand van der Kooij, technical director at Andijk-based De Jong Lelies modelling the pollen-free Oriental Liber Edge.

The future lily landscape

Regarding the ranking and market position of LAs, OT hybrids, Orientals, Asiatics and Longiflorums, the lily industry does not expect it will enter an era of upheaval soon.

LA and OT hybrids, with an estimated volume market share of 60 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively, will continue to dominate the global lily scene and for a good reason. “The LA-hybrid group, bred from crossing Longiflorums and Asiatics and resulting in a suite of showy cultivars that are less sensitive to flower bud abortion than Asiatics, continues to be very popular in Europe, North America, and Japan.

Depending on the local conditions, LAs have an average finishing time between 9-11 weeks instead of the slower growing Orientals (14-16 weeks) and OT hybrids (12-14 weeks). In Dutch greenhouses, growers of LA hybrids realise up to four crop cycles per year. LAs also allow bulb farmers to plant more bulbs per hectare, so LA is also a matter of better yields at the bulb farming level,” says Verbraeken from Van den Bos Flowerbulbs.

Arjan Alkemade, export manager of Central and South America at bulb exporter C. Steenvoorden BV highlights the sector’s innovative capacity in pollen-free, referencing the new line of Liber lilies. He thinks Liber Lilies are unique because “it is the first-time breeders have catered for a complete pollen-free series, that is, pollen-free cultivars that belong to each other like a family. For a long time, breeders hardly introduced something new and different, in pollen-free leading to commercial market entries, apart from some stand-alone varieties.”

C. Steenvoorden BV, founded in 1955 by the father of the current owner Cees Steenvoorden, is one of the Netherlands’ six major lily bulb exporters. Asked about his reactions to today’s available assortment of lilies, he slightly prefers the OT group, which he thinks caused quite a stir in the new Millenium, bringing with them bold colours, massive flower buds and fewer hassles for cut flower growers and lily bulb farmers alike. He says, “In Taiwan, they simply love OT as they are easy to grow in shade halls and a firm favourite with consumers.”

Meanwhile, crosses between longiflorums and Oriental hybrids, the so-called LOs, are slowly making their way to the market. LO Woori Tower and LO ‘Freedom Tower’ have an upwards-growing form and uniform stem lengths and are heat resistant.

Anticipation is also building for the crossings made between Trumpets and Asiatics, selling under the Bloomlily TA brand. ‘The orange TA ‘Foxley’ holds one of the best cards. Alkemade says, “It is much more disease-resistant, so fewer chemicals are needed in bulb farming. The same applies to the red TA ‘Orfeo’. In white TAs, we have ‘Volvic’. In TA, practically the same colours are available as in LA’s, making them a potential competitor for the latter in the future.”

Overall, among Lily Days exhibitors, there was consensus that each of the lily groups would hold on to its stable ranking. Few dared to say, for example, that OT-hybrids will soon overshadow Orientals. Perhaps, they will gain some additional market share despite virus sensitivity, an issue that some accept but others contest. Across all groups, the main thrust of a lily breeding programme is the colour, number of flower buds, strong growth, pest and disease resistance level, and their presentation and orientation. Still, changing consumer preferences could spark major shifts within each of the lily groups. Pollen-free and double-flowered lilies in Orientals, OTs and LAs are the way forward.

Hans Damen, commercial manager at Van Zanten Flowerbulbs BV.

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