Dean of Hybridists
Today is the 55th anniversary of the death of Canada’s first professional woman plant breeder - a woman called the “Dean of Hybridists” and the “Grand Lady of Canadian Horticulture" - Isabella Preston.
When Vita Sackville-West first heard her name, she famously acknowledged, "I must confess I don't know anything about Miss Isabella Preston of Ottawa."
Isabella's name had become known internationally as the result of her Lily hybrids. In 1919, Isabella bred the renowned George C. Creelman Hybrid Lily after crossing two Lily cultivars from southern China, a hardy Lily and a fragrant Lily. The Creelman Lily was a stunner; human-sized (it grew about 6 feet tall), and it featured a sweet-scented white bloom with pink speckles on its yellow throat. Isabella named the Creelman Lily after the President of the Ontario Agricultural College. Today, there are no known Creelman Lilies in existence, although people still search for them.
Vita would have loved Isabella's practical and hard-won advice. When a colleague asked Isabella what she should do with her rock garden, her advice was fascinating:
“Use every bit of rock – Don’t be afraid of it. Plant between, atop or alongside. Presently, you will be convinced that flowers need near them the harsh stability of stone.”
Isabella was a self-taught plant hybridizer. In 1920, she began work at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. For almost three decades, she endeavored to create more blooms on more disease-resistant plants. She created over 200 cultivars of six different plants, including Lilacs, Lilies, Crab Apples, Columbine, Siberian Iris, and Roses. Preston Lilacs are named in her honor, and Isabella received many honors for her work.