The lily of the season

The Easter season is upon us. It is a time of joy and celebration, of religious significance, and of the promise of spring and the summer months that lie ahead. It is a time of resurrection, both of the Christ child and of the earth itself. Perhaps the most widely shared symbol of this season is the Easter lily, Lilium longiflorum, with its magnificent white flowers and remarkable fragrance.

It is said that lilies were found growing in the garden of Gethsemane, and that lovely white lilies grew where Jesus’ blood, sweat and tears fell, in the hours before his 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.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Easter lilies are the fourth largest crop in wholesale value in the U.S. potted plant market. I find that rather remarkable, especially when you consider that these beautiful snow-white flowers are sold for only two or maybe three weeks each year. Poinsettias, mums and azaleas rank first, second and third. Widely grown Easter lily cultivars include Ace, Croft and the Estate variety, which can grow to be 3 feet tall. Nellie White, a popular cultivar that produces large trumpet-like flowers, was created by lily grower James White, who named the hybrid after his wife.

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 in the United States 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 Easter Lilies from the 1850s until 1898, when a virus and nematode infestation wiped out the entire industry. In 1919, Louis Houghton brought the first hybrid Bermuda lily bulbs to the United States. They were planted along Oregon’s southern seacoast. Today, almost all of the bulbs grown for the potted Easter lily market are produced on just 10 farms, in a small region along the California Oregon border. Every year, from late September through early October, these 10 growers harvest roughly 12 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.

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. Keeping them cool at night (some horticulturalists recommend 40 to 50 degrees) will prolong the period of bloom. In theory, removing the pollen bearing anthers (the yellow tips) from the six stamens, as soon as possible after the flowers open, will also help to prolong the life of the blooms, since the flowers will not become pollinated. 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 for many years after being replanted outdoors, in sheltered settings (i.e. 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 past, 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 will soon begin to see new growth.

Occasionally, the plants will produce a few flowers again, in late summer or early fall. It is more likely, however, that you will 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 and 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!

NOTE: 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 the only species known to be affected.