If roses are the Queen of Flowers, then foxtail lilies must be the King. The undisputed skyscrapers of the perennial border, several species grow flowering spikes that top 2.5 metres and even the smallest hybrids are more than one metre tall. All bear staggeringly beautiful racemes of flowers –hundreds if not thousands per inflorescence– in pastel shades of white, pink and the palest yellow, as well as fiery oranges and rusty golds.
Plant profile: Foxtail lily
Essentially Asian alpines, the first foxtail lily (Eremurus spectabilis) to reach the West was discovered in 1810 in the Caucasus Mountains by German botanist Friedrich August, Marschall von Bieberstein (1768-1826). For the rest of the 19th century, various eremurus species found their way to Europe via plant hunters, clerics and explorers, and today, botanists recognize about 45 separate species.
By the late 1800s, a number of gardening enthusiasts had begun to cross different eremurus species; the most successful of these hybridizers was the chair of physiology at the University of Cambridge, Sir Michael Foster (1836-1907). By crossing E. olgae with E. stenophyllus, he developed a new race of cultivars that he named E. ×isabellinus (after his wife, Isabelle). These plants were released in 1902, and became known as the Shelford Hybrids. At 1.2 metres tall in a wide range of coloured flowers, they quickly became popular with the public and remained garden main stays for the next 50 years.
Then, in the late 1940s, a Dutch breeder named N.C. Ruiter began to re-cross the Shelford clones, eventually releasing his own cultivars – the Ruiter hybrids – in the 1950s; they’re still the most widely planted eremuri worldwide. Currently, cut-flower grower Ken Romrell (Idaho) is busy breeding new cultivars using germplasm from both the Shelford and Ruiter hybrids. Romrell recently released his own Spring Valley Hybrids, which could eventually prove to be better suited to our North American climate than the European-bred cultivars.