Perhaps a years-long project, but I have a vision to develop locally-adapted strains of Lilium bulbs through landrace gardening. I've already gathered seeds of a large number of different species and hybrid strains, through seed exchanges such as the North American Rock Garden Society, Pacific Bulb Society and others. I've grown up these seeds into plants that are gradually reaching flowering size. Over the last couple of years, I've saved seed and replanted that seed to continue the strains.
This genus for me is of great potential, not only for its unparalleled beauty, and support of pollinators like hummingbirds and butterflies, but because many of the species have a long history of edible use by indigenous people in my area (the Pacific Northwest). Northwest peoples have roasted Lilium bulbs (like other bulbs such as Camas) in pits with coals. Meanwhile, in Asia, other species are commonly used in cooking. I think it's possible to find some edible species such as Lilium davidii, Lilium lancifolium (the true "tiger lily") in Asian groceries in my area. Being a starchy root, Lilium bulbs can be used like potatoes - roasted, added to soups, dried and ground into a flour, etc. They can also be added to stir-fries.
However, many species and strains are not suitable for growing as perennial vegetables, because they are too slow-growing, are bitter-tasting, or have other cultivation issues such as disease susceptibility. Some strains are just the opposite, one example being Lilium pardalinum var. giganteum, which is a very vigorous type found as a wild plant in the Van Duzen river area in Northern California. I started seed of this type in 2014 and through division of the resulting bulb clumps, I now have a large patch. Furthermore, I've also used vegetative propagation (scales from the bulbs) to increase the numbers much more quickly, to the point where its level of production makes it a realistic crop. In some permaculture systems, it could be grown as a backup food source, primarily enjoying the flowers and supporting the pollinators.
It's still a slow process to grow multiple generations of plants, but there's a whole community of Lilium hybridizers who do it routinely, but that community doesn't have much intersection with the permaculture community. Most breeding is being done with flowers in mind, not eating qualities. Nonetheless, strains from hybridizing projects that others are doing are still potentially edible and can still contribute to a landrace breeding project.
Breeding lilies sounds like a beautiful project. We have glacial lilies here, that grow in deep shade. We eat the flowers.
I treat sunroots are a perennial. And I did a breeding project with them.
My technique was to inter-plant the varieties to be hybridized, and allow them to cross pollinate. Then plant the seeds in a new spot in the garden. A new spot had to be used each year, so that I could tell the difference between new seedlings, and old varieties.
Each year, I would take the best 15% of the tubers, and replant them in a location where they could cross pollinate and produce the next generation of seeds. The old patches with the old varieties became weedy. My goal was to at least mow them before they flowered. My fields became filled with sunroot weeds, therefore I stopped breeding new varieties.
Of course, perennial systems are different in terms of their management than annual systems. Perennial beds can work on a small scale, where they can be weeded enough. There's no reset at the beginning of each season on weeds (as with tilling), so it has to be manually managed, which can include weeding, mulching, or better yet, planting with polyculture that will occupy the space sufficiently and support the main crop. The perennial vegetables might be allowed to run wild in a forest garden or similar situation. In my case, I'm still learning how to work with more complex polycultures. Unfortunately, there's no one who can tell me what species will be compatible fellow guild members for the Liliums. I tried a type of vetch that comes up here as a garden weed, but the viny growth overwhelmed the Liliums completely. A friend tried the native plant Dicentra formosa, but that created a thick root mat that Lilium bulbs couldn't easily penetrate to emerge in the spring. I now think low-growing herbs like thyme could work, with the added benefit of anti-fungal properties, but it will take a number of years of experimenting to find guilds and management systems that really work. I will try to minimize the amount of manual intervention by setting up systems that can self-manage.
The landrace breeding concept plays a role in this. Just by planting out seeds from the plants that succeed, I will be breeding for adaptation to my habits and management methods, including what plants I grow them with. Obviously I want a no-fuss population of Liliums that mostly manage on their own. That's not how it is now. I have to do a lot of manual work on most of the Liliums I'm growing, doing what I can to keep them safer from slugs, rabbits, deer, mice, fungal disease, etc., especially in the early stages with young and more vulnerable plants, but I expect to move closer to no-fuss management with the later generations that are better adapted. Some of the strains are already vigorous and managing pretty much on their own, so it is working. I think about Joseph Lofthouse's stories about starting off growing melons and having most of the crop fail to produce, although they contributed pollen and therefore still became part of the landrace.
The challenge with plants that take a number of years to reach flowering and produce seeds, is that it's a lot slower process, more of a lifetime commitment than a short-term project.
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
In my ecosystem, glacial lilies and violas grow together, in the leaf litter, in what becomes deep shade after the maples leaf out. They are just finishing blooming when their niche gets shaded.
One of my daydreams about garlic, is to develop a variety that can be direct seeded, and produce a large bulb the first growing season. Onions do that, and they are closely related to garlic. Therefore, it might be possible.
Even if lilies currently take three years to produce useful food, doesn't mean that's a permanent characteristic. We get what we select for.