The Easter Lily
(Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on April 3, 2010. Your comments are welcome but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Lilium longiflorum is a native of the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan. Beginning in the late 1800s, the bulb was cultivated in Bermuda and then shipped to the United States. American production of the Easter lily began when an Oregon soldier named Louis Houghton returned home from World War I with some of the bulbs and shared them with fellow gardeners.
When World War II began and Asian sources of the bulbs were cut off, suddenly imported Easter lilies became scarce and expensive. American lily nursery production began in earnest, and the bulbs were known as “white gold” to growers attempting to make a profit. By 1945, 1,200 lily growers were in business up and down the west coast. Today the market is dominated by a handful of growers located on the the Oregon-California border in an approximately 12-mile-long strip of land along the Pacific coast, called the "Easter Lily Capital of the World."
Did You Know?
• Large, white-flowered “Nellie White,” named in honor of the wife of lily grower James White, is the most widely grown Easter lily cultivar.
• Ten farms in a coastal region of the California-Oregon border grow almost all the bulbs which supply the potted lily market.
• The Easter lily industry had a wholesale value of $35 million in 2005.
Lilies, a symbol of purity and grace, have long been associated with Christianity, representing both Jesus’ resurrection and his mother Mary. Depictions of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear the son of God, frequently featured white lilies. For Christians, the lily serves as a joyful reminder of the miracle of the resurrection and the promise of eternal life.
To get the most enjoyment out of your Easter lily, choose a compact plant that looks good from all angles. Look for dense, plentiful foliage that indicates a healthy root system. The plant should have plenty of buds of varying sizes, and not more than one or two partly opened blooms. Easter lilies prefer cooler indoor temperatures away from drafts and sources of heat. A spot in bright, indirect sunlight is ideal. Water the soil when it is dry to the touch, but take care not to overwater, particularly if the pot is inside a decorative overwrap. Avoid allowing the pot to sit in water. Be sure to keep the lily out of reach of cats, as it is highly poisonous to them.
After the blossoms fully open, it’s a good idea to carefully trim away the yellow anthers. This will prevent the flower’s pollen from staining the white flowers (or possibly your clothing, furniture or carpeting), and it will also help prolong the flower’s bloom. As soon as each flower passes its prime, neatly trim it off so that the plant will look its best as the remaining blossoms open.
You can plant your bulb outside once it is done blooming. Continue to keep it watered and when the weather permits, plant it in a sunny spot in well-drained soil amended with organic matter. As with all lilies, the bulbs should be planted 5 or 6 inches below ground level. Allow the foliage to continue to mature, as this is how the bulb builds up reserves for the next season’s flower. Although they are forced into bloom in a greenhouse to be ready for the holiday season, these lilies will revert to a natural summer bloom time by the following season.
Sources: Easter Lily Research Foundation; University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Illustrations: Henry John Elwes: A monograph of the genus Lilium; illustrated by W.H. Fitch. Taylor and Francis, London 1880, in the public domain; "Annunciation" by Fra Filippo Lippi, 1443, in the public domain.
Photo Credit: Easter Lily by Schmetterling