Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Lilies of Easter 

Potted Easter lily (Lilium longflorium)

Consider the lilies… – Luke 12:27 (KJV) Matthew 6:28 (KJV)

The Easter season is upon us. It’s a time of celebration, religious significance, and the arrival of spring. It’s a time of resurrection, both of Jesus Christ and of the earth itself; the season of new beginnings;

The Easter lily, Lilium longiflorum, with its magnificent white flowers and remarkable fragrance, may be the most widely shared symbol of the season. The white lily has come to symbolize the spiritual virtues of Easter; purity, rebirth, new beginnings, hope, and life.

It’s said that lilies were found growing in the garden of Gethsemane. And that they sprung up in Golgotha, in the hours before Jesus’ death.

For Easter Sunday, many churches cover their altars and surround their crosses with lilies to commemorate the Resurrection and to remember and honor loved relatives and friends who have passed away.

Valuable and Beautiful 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Easter lilies are the fourth largest crop in wholesale value in the U.S. potted plant market which, when you consider that they’re sold for only 2 or maybe 3 weeks each year, is quite remarkable. Poinsettias, mums, and azaleas rank first, second, and third.

The cultivar most commonly grown for U.S. markets is Nellie White, which produces large trumpet-like flowers and can grow to be 3 feet tall. It’s was created by lily grower James White; who named it after his wife. Other widely grown cultivars include Ace, Croft, and Estate.


A Brief History 

Easter lilies are native to the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan and, prior to World War II, when commercial production shifted to the United States, the vast majority of potted Easter lily bulbs sold here were imported from Japan. Today, the superior quality of U.S. grown bulbs is recognized around the world.

Bermuda was a center for commercial production of from 1850 until 1898, when a virus and nematode infestation wiped out the entire industry. In 1919, Louis Houghton brought the first hybrid Bermuda Easter lily bulbs to the U.S. They were planted along Oregon’s southern seacoast.

Today, almost all of the bulbs grown for the potted Easter lily market are produced in a small region along the California / Oregon border on fewer than a dozen farms. Every year, from late September through early October, those growers harvest roughly 14 million bulbs, which they ship to commercial greenhouses across North America. The bulbs are then planted in pots and ‘forced’ indoors, under controlled conditions, to flower just in time for Easter.

Easter lily flower

Easter lily flower. Photo Credit: Colorado State University.

Caring for Easter Lilies 

In the home, Easter lilies, when in flower, prefer indirect, bright, natural light or filtered sunlight and moderately cool temperatures, no higher than 68 degrees F. Keeping them cool at night (some horticulturalists recommend 40 to 50 degrees F) will prolong the period of bloom. The soil should be kept moderately moist and well drained.

Easter lilies are not fully hardy in northern New York, but I have heard of them surviving to bloom successfully after being replanted outdoors, in sheltered settings (e.g. near the foundation of a house). If you would like to try to ‘resurrect’ your Easter lilies outdoors, you must first remember to cut away declining blooms as they wither and fade. Once the last bloom has been removed, place the plants in a sunny window and continue to water whenever the soil becomes slightly dry, being careful not to overwater. The leaves will yellow and slowly die back.

Once the danger of frost has passed, cut the stems back to within a few inches of the soil surface. Choose a protected, comparably sunny location for your garden bed and, making sure that the roots remain in a natural position (spread out and down), transplant your bulbs into the garden site, 3 to 4 inches below ground level, in fairly rich, well-drained soil, leaving at least 12 to 18 inches between bulbs. Mound up an additional inch or two of soil over the bulbs and water the bed thoroughly but carefully, so as not to disturb the soil or leave air pockets. With a little luck, you’ll soon see new growth.

Occasionally, the plants will produce a few flowers again, in late summer or early fall. It’s more likely, however, that you’ll have to wait until the following summer to see your Easter lilies bloom again.

Lilies like their roots to be shaded and cool. And topping the soil with a thin layer of mulch will help keep the roots cool during a hot summer. You might also consider planting a low ground cover of shallow-rooted, annuals or perennials along with your Easter lilies, for a complimentary touch that may also eliminate the need for summertime mulch.

To overwinter your bulbs, mulch the bed generously with straw, leaves, or pine needles. Remove the mulch carefully, in the spring. You can also dig your Easter lily bulbs in the fall and store them indoors the same way you would other tender bulbs or corms.

Good luck! And Happy Easter!


Lilies are Poisonous to Cats 

Several types of lilies, including Easter lilies, are known to be poisonous to cats. All parts of the plant are considered toxic and, according to the ASPCA National Poison Control Center, renal failure and death may result when cats ingest the foliage of an Easter lily. Cats are only species known to be affected.

Photo at top: Potted Easter lily (Lilium longflorium.) Photo Credit: Colorado State University.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

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3 Responses

  1. Ray Worth says:

    Enjoyed your article “Lilies of Easter”, both in your introductory sentence referencing the Christian significance of the season, no mention was made as to the concurrent celebrations of deliverance by the other two Abramic faiths. Our Islamic brothers and sisters are in the middle of Ramadan, a month of fasting and reflection similar to Lent. It concludes 20 March with Eid ul Fitr. And our Jewish friends begin Passover (Pesach) the Wednesday before Good Friday. This should remind believers that God meant his creation, and its season of renewal, rebirth, and redemption for all of his children, regardless of their mode of worship.

    • Jackie Woodcock says:

      I know many people of the Jewish Faith and a few of the Muslim faith. Neither of these faiths mention Christianity in their festivities as they are not Christian. As a matter of fact, I only know a few Muslim people as in the middle east Muslim people can be stoned to death or imprisoned for communicating with Christians so I’m pretty sure they just celebrate their own religion. I can respect your drive for inclusivity, perhaps that should be a sentiment shared with all Faiths and not just one in particular. Similarly Christians on the 4th of July do not go around saying Happy sinco demio nor happy Quanza during Christmas time.

  2. Jackie Woodcock says:

    This was a great article! It was interesting and informative! Hope to see more. Have a Happy Easter!

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