Easter lilies - the backstory



I’m wondering – did any of you wind up with an Easter lily in the house? Perhaps not as popular as they once were, these lilies were commonly used as holiday decorations and given as gifts not so long ago.  

In Christendom, Easter is a pretty big deal and so it was in my Catholic parish when I was a child. Sunrise services were not nearly as popular as midnight Mass at Christmas, but whenever you showed up at church on this celebratory day, the altar would be banked in pure white Easter lilies.

Most people bought them for the home as well and that’s where you got to study up close those huge, waxy blooms with their clean, sweet scent. You had to be careful about burying your nose in them, since the pollen-laden anthers could paint your nose yellow and any grains of pollen that fell could stain your brand-new Easter outfit, a faux pas that did not endear you to Mom.

The flower we know as the Easter lily has a curious history, a tangled web of ancient and biblical symbolism, wartime trade disruptions and good old-fashioned capitalist enterprise.

A genus of more than 100 species, lilies are among the oldest of cultivated flowers. Grown by the Minoans as far back as 1,500 BCE, emblazoned on Greek pottery and mentioned in both the Old Testament and the New, lilies have figure in mythology since ancient times. Mostly, they were associated with women and motherhood.

For the Romans it was Juno, queen of all the gods, who spilt a bit of mother’s milk while nursing her son Hercules. Some of the droplets became the array of stars we know even today as the Milky Way and some fell to earth as lilies of the field. According to the Hebrew accounts, lilies sprung up from the remorseful tears of Eve, mother of us all.

Naturally, the Christians had to get into the act and they assigned the lily to the Virgin Mary, symbolic of her unblemished purity.  In religious paintings from the 14th century onward, the Angel Gabriel shows up to announce Mary’s chosen status as a mother-to-be with a stem of lilies in hand.

The problem with drawing a straight line between these stories and today’s Easter lily is that they are not at all the same thing, horticulturally speaking. The white lily of the Mediterranean and Mid East was Lilium candidum, known as the Madonna lily in a triumph of Christian symbolism over Greco-Roman myth. Unfortunately, this plant stubbornly resists the precisely timed forced flowering that has made its substitute, Lilium longiflorum, the traditional Easter lily of our day.

Our Easter lily could not have played any role whatsoever in Western myth and faith since it is native to the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. It was collected in 1777 by an early plant hunter, Carl Peter Thunberg, and arrived in England by 1819.

From there, it was sent to the British colony of Bermuda, where it thrived in conditions similar to its original island home – alkaline soils and moderate year-round temperatures. It was so successfully grown as a fragrance source for perfumes and cosmetics that it was known in short order as the “Bermuda lily.”

Jump ahead a century to 1919. That’s when a World War I veteran, Louis Houghton, brought a suitcase full of Bermuda lily bulbs home to the southern coast of Oregon, a place also uniquely suited to the lily’s cultural preferences. This proved fortuitous.

Before World War II exploded into the Pacific arena with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, nearly all of our Easter lily bulbs came directly from Japan. By the time trade was interrupted by hostilities, cultivation of the lily was well established on a narrow stretch of the coast spanning northern California and southern Oregon. That region still produces nearly all of the 14 million lily bulbs sent to American greenhouses to be forced into bloom.

It only took some intensive greenhouse work and a bit of marketing to make this obliging lily a conspicuous symbol of Easter. If you have one, here's what to do with it: Keep it going as a houseplant until the flowers fade, whereupon you should cut them off.

Then plant them outdoors once the weather has warmed a bit. If the lily survives, it will bloom in subsequent years at its normal time – in the summer, which does not yet have an iconic holiday flower unless you count the explosive “blossoms” of Fourth of July fireworks.

Some enterprising plant breeder may one day fix that, plugging the hole in our floral calendar with the equivalent of the Christmas poinsettia, the Easter lily and the ubiquitous fall chrysanthemum.  You never know.  


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