Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Easter will be here soon, and many people will buy an Easter lily or two. What do Bermuda, World Wars I and II, and Japan have to do with Easter lilies? As it turns out, they have quite a lot to do with the lilies we associate with Easter.
Historically, lilies have appeared in art, mythology, and literature, particularly the Bible, as a symbol of purity, hope, and life. Traditionally, Christian churches have used the lily in great numbers at Easter, to symbolize Christ's resurrection and the hope of life everlasting.
It may sound surprising, but the plant we know as the Easter lily, Lilium longiflorum, is native to the southern islands of Japan, and flowers in the summer. Plant explorer Carl Peter discovered this lily and sent it to his native England in 1819. They became so popular that by the 1850's, commercial production was moved to Bermuda, a British territory.
Associating these lilies with Easter is credited to Ms. Thomas Sargent. She visited Bermuda in the 1880's and fell in love with the lilies blooming in the fields there, so she brought some back to her home in Philadelphia. She convinced local nurseryman William Harris to grow some in his greenhouse and force them to bloom in the spring. He sold them to florists, and soon they became popular plants for Easter, symbolizing Christ's Resurrection.
Over the ensuing years, the plant formerly known as the Bermuda lily took on the common name Easter lily. Unfortunately, a virus and nematodes ruined the Bermuda lily industry in 1898. The bulk of lily production moved to Japan, and remained strong until World War II.
Easter lily production in the U.S. is credited to Louis Houghton, a World War I soldier who returned from the war with a suitcase full of hybrid lily bulbs to Oregon in 1919. He happily shared these bulbs with family and friends that enjoyed gardening as a hobby.
In 1941, World War II and the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor cut off the U.S. supply of Easter lilies. Luckily, there were still descendants of Houghton's bulbs on the west coast, and soon everyone wanted a piece of this "white gold" to supply American demands for Easter lilies.
At the height of the frenzy to cash in on this floral crop, there were about 1,200 growers on the west coast, spanning from Southern Canada to Southern California. Growers soon learned that production quality depended on very specific climate conditions, not as widely available as initially believed.
Over time production was reduced to cover a small area at the Oregon-California border, with only ten farms surviving to produce the high quality bulbs the public demanded. Today some refer to this coastal area as the "Easter Lily Capital of the World". Amazingly, these ten farms produce all the Easter lily bulbs for the U.S. and Canada. Japan re-entered the lily market after World War II, but despite being the native habitat of Easter lilies, they were unable to match the high quality of bulbs produced in this small area on the U.S. Pacific Coast.
The journey from bulblet to flowering plant is a long one for the Easter lily. New bulblets are grown, lifted, and replanted once a year for four years before they are large enough to be shipped to commercial greenhouses and grown for Easter.
Growing Easter lilies is a very complex process, as the date of Easter changes each year, depending celestial rules defined in the Gregorian calendar. Simply put, Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon of spring. Depending on where Easter falls, there may be more or less natural light available in the greenhouse, affecting whether and how much artificial light must be added. It also affects when the bulbs must be planted. They need about a thousand hours of cool, moist conditions to initiate blooming. This must be taken into account when planning an Easter lily crop.
When choosing an Easter lily, use similar criteria as you would for choosing any flowering plant. A healthy, green plant without yellowing leaves will support flowers a lot better than a withering, yellowing plant. Choose a plant with a few open blooms, but still plenty of unopened blooms—this will lengthen the bloom time in your home. Remember to remove any plastic sleeves around the plant—they hold in too much moisture. Pot covers are fine, but remember to remove any standing water after watering to prevent root rot.
Lengthen the life of individual flowers by removing the pollen producing yellow anthers. This will also prevent pollen stains on the flowers and your tablecloth! Also keep the plants relatively cool, at 60 to 65 degrees, cooler at night, and avoid hot or cold drafts, to lengthen bloom time. Keep the plant moist, not wet, in indirect bright light and you will be rewarded with weeks of blooms.
Keep in mind that all parts of the Easter lily are poisonous, especially to cats, causing kidney failure and even death if untreated. If your cat eats any amount of your Easter lily, see your veterinarian immediately.
Easter lilies may be planted out in the garden after the danger of frost has passed. Making sure the planting site is well-drained is essential. The bulbs should be planted six inches deep, and mulched well to conserve moisture. Lilies like their heads in the sun and feet in the shade.
The original plant will die back, and new growth should resume as summer progresses. You may be lucky enough to get a second set of blooms! Nonetheless, remove any dead foliage in the fall and mulch well for winter protection. Fertilize with a balanced fertilizer as new growth appears in the spring, and flowering will occur naturally in June or July, ideally for years to come.
I attempted to grow an Easter lily in my garden. It started out a textbook-perfect case: the original plant died back, new growth appeared, and by July I even had a couple of new blooms. Winter came, and I mulched my Easter lily and crossed my fingers.
The following Spring, the Easter lily started to grow again, and I was very excited, and enjoyed checking on the progress of the shoots that emerged from the ground. Then the rabbits found my precious Easter lily. They made short work of my Easter lily as well as every other lily in my garden. Only a few lilies survived that year, and by what I have seen so far in my garden, it looks like none have survived to grow this spring, and I will be buying new lilies this year. I will definitely plant Easter lily again, and I will probably fence it off to keep the rabbits out and give it a fighting chance!