With its large trumpet-shaped blooms in pure white color, Lilium longiflorum has become synonymous with Easter. The imagery may be apt for the occasion, but a lot of effort is required to prepare these ephemeral blossoms for a celebration of eternal victory.
While lilies may have long symbolized beauty and purity, the association of this species with Easter is a modern tradition. Easter lilies are native to Japan and in the early 1900s bulbs were imported through Bermuda. The plants eventually made their way to the Oregon/California border with the help of WWI veteran Louis Houghton where they found the perfect climate for thriving. WWII cut off imports from Japan allowing American-produced lilies to take over the domestic market. These plants remain the fourth-most sold potted plant in the industry (behind poinsettias, mums and azaleas). Their market value is more than $35 million annually, and the region between Del Norte County in California to Curry County in Oregon is known as the Easter lily capital of the world. Here 95% of North America’s Easter lilies (>11 million bulbs) are grown.
It may have taken Jesus only three days to rise from the dead, but for the lilies you see blooming today, you must go back three years. On farms in the Easter lily capital of the world where the bulbs are cultivated, Easter lilies have humble beginnings. They are first planted as small bulb leaf or scale. This plant grows for the season and the bulbs are dug up from the ground, graded by size and saved for replanting the following season. This cycle is repeated for another two years. As the plants from these bulbs grow and try to develop flower buds, field workers glide through the fields on special harnesses (so there’s no hours and hours of stooping over) called mechanical creepers and pinch off any buds that form. This is because commercial lily bulb producers want their plants bulking up their bulbs and not expending energy on flower production. Once the flowers are removed, all of the sugar produced by photosynthesis is transported and stored in the underground bulb. This is particularly remarkable in the late summer when the bulbs can have a 1-inch expansion in circumference in just a week or two. Harvesting the bulbs is carefully timed to be just after this growth spurt. At the end of their third growing season, the bulbs have reached commercial grade size and can be packaged and sold to growers that cultivate them for sale as potted plants.
On Easter Sunday these lilies adorn churches and gravestones in splendor worthy of a resurrection celebration. While we may use the flowers as a symbol of the celebration of Christians’ victory over death, there is no everlasting life when it comes to the market value of Easter lilies. Sure, they are perennials and will re-sprout from their bulbs year after year if properly cared for, but they will not naturally bloom at Easter. Of the most popular purchased potted plants, Easter lilies have the shortest buying window of them all- a mere two weeks leading up to Easter when buyers expect plants with blooms and buds ready to burst forth and announce the resurrection. This means that commercial growers must force the plants to bloom in the spring instead of midsummer as is their natural tendency. If they miss their mark on the calendar, they have no commercial value.
How do growers orchestrate this feat of botanical synchronization? I’ve mentioned before on this blog that plants have various ways of keeping time using light (really length of darkness). Plants also have an internal calculator to tally the amount of chilling hours they have received. Together these accounting systems give the plants seasonal information as to when they should burst forth in bloom. After the Easter lily bulbs have been bulked up for three years, growers that prepare them for sale as potted plants ‘force’ them to develop to flowering stage just in time for Easter. This is done by chilling the bulbs near 40 F (but never freezing) for 1000 hours or about 9 weeks during October, November and December. There are a few different ways this can be done before or after potting depending on the facilities available to the grower. Exposure of young plants to long day light conditions in a greenhouse can substitute for up to two weeks of the chilling requirement. This trick is especially useful if Easter is early and it is not possible to achieve full chilling requirements. Keep in mind that the date of Easter can vary by as much as five weeks and Easter lily growers must adjust their calendars accordingly when it comes to plant preparation.
So this Easter, as you celebrate with these lovely lilies, keep in mind that while their flowers may be short-lived, quite a bit of work was invested to ensure they looked just right at just the right time. Continue to care for your plants and the bulbs and the lilies will also rise again- just later on the calendar than when Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated.
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