Easter Lilies have beauty, symbolism
Most of our churches will adorn their altars and surround their crosses with masses of Easter Lilies, to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and hope of life everlasting. Often called the "white-robed apostles of hope," lilies are said to have been found growing in the Garden of Gethsemane after Christ's agony. Tradition has it that the beautiful white blooms sprung up where drops of Christ's sweat fell to the ground in his final hours of sorrow and deep distress. This beautiful trumpet-shaped blossom symbolizes purity, hope and life -- the spiritual essence of Easter -- and the promise of spring.
Lilium longiflorum is the Latin name for the Easter lily. It is a native of the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan. Prior to 1941, the majority of the Easter lily bulbs were exported to the United States from Japan. World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor eliminated our dependence on Japanese-produced bulbs and commercial bulb production shifted to the U.S. We can credit Louis Houghton, a World War I soldier, for introducing the Easter Lily into the United States. When he returned from active duty to his home along the southern coast of Oregon in 1919, he brought with him a suitcase full of lily bulbs. He gave them to friends, and when we quit buying from Japan, the rising price of the bulbs suddenly made the lily business a viable industry and the bulbs were nicknamed "White Gold."
Today more than 95 percent of all bulbs grown for the potted Easter Lily market are produced by just 10 farms in a narrow coastal region straddling the California-Oregon border, from Smith River, Calif. up to Brookings, Ore. The Easter Lily market is the fourth largest crop in wholesale value in the United States potted plant market. It is right behind poinsettias, mums and azaleas. Of these four top crops, the Easter Lily has the narrowest holiday sales window, typically only two weeks. The poinsettia has a holiday sales window of approximately six weeks, and mums and azaleas are available year-around.
The cultivar most widely grown today is called "Nellie White" and was chosen because of it's large, white trumpet shaped flowers. This selection was made by a lily grower by the name of James White, who named it after his wife.
The commercial-sized bulb takes two to three years to develop. Harvesting takes place in the fall in late September and early October. Baby bulblets are stripped from the mother plants and tenderly placed in the ground to grow for one year. The yearling bulbs are dug after one year, treated and re-planted in newly-prepared fields for the following year's commercial crop. The following year the commercial-sized bulbs are dug, cleaned, graded, sorted, packed and cooled.
The commercial bulbs are then shipped to greenhouse growers in the U.S. and Canada, who force the plants under controlled conditions to flower in time for Easter. This is a tricky process since Easter falls on a different day each year. The first Sunday that follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox, which makes Easter any day between March 22 and April 25. Bulbs need to be of consistent high quality with reliable vigor and performance. They must bloom exactly when they're are supposed to, with no margin for error.
Easter Lilies like bright, but indirect sunlight, with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees, and cooler at night. Removal of the yellow anthers from the flower centers helps prolong the life of the blossoms and prevents the pollen on the anthers from staining the flowers, your hands, clothing, tablecloths, rugs and anything else it may touch.
Water lilies: When they feel dry, always remove them from their foil wrapper, let water run through the plant and then replace the lily back in the foil wrapper. If your lily sits in trapped, standing water in the foil wrapper, the result will be "death by drowning."
Remove blossoms as they fade. After the lily is done blooming, keep the soil moist until danger of frost is past. It can then be planted in a sunny location in your garden. Remember that these lilies have been forced to bloom at Easter and will not bloom again this season. However, they may bloom next year in June or July. Plant them in well-drained, rich organic soil and fertilize with 10-10-10 in the spring. The bulb should be planted 3 inches deep, with 3 inches of organic mulch piled around the surface of the ground. Lilies like sun on their leaves and cool on their roots. "Nellie White" is a zone 5, however if it is winter mulched with a thick, generous layer (about 6 inches) of straw, leaves, evergreen boughs, wood chips or pine needles, it is surprisingly hardy even in cold climates. It is a challenge probably worth the effort. Otherwise you can dig the bulbs in the fall, store them, and replant them in the spring.
Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.