During the Easter season, homes and churches alike are adorned with the gorgeous, fragrant white blooms we call Easter lilies. But have you ever thought about where these flowers came from, or how they got their name? As you pick out a lily arrangement to show off on your Easter table, you can take a little extra knowledge (and some tips from our very own Grumpy Gardener) with you.
There are several theories about Christian symbolism surrounding the Easter lily. Often referred to as “white-robed apostles of hope,” their color symbolizes the purity of Christ, who was free from sin. In many paintings, the angel Gabriel is depicted as handing Mary white lilies, which symbolizes her purity as well. The trumpet shape of the Easter lily represents a trumpet sounding the message that Jesus has risen, and the nature in which lilies grow is symbolic of the resurrection as well. From ugly bulbs that are underground for three years or longer, they become beautiful flowers. This process is reminiscent of Jesus’s brutal death and holy resurrection. Thus, lilies represent rebirth and hope, just as the resurrection does in the Christian faith.
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Lilies are also mentioned or alluded to several times in the Bible. Some think that it was white lilies that sprouted in the Garden of Eden as Eve’s remorseful tears fell to the ground. There are also theories that Easter lilies grew where Jesus’s tears and blood fell from the cross, and lilies were supposedly found in the Garden of Gethsemane after the crucifixion, tying them even closer to the Easter holiday.
In Matthew 6:25-29, Jesus says, “ Therefore I say unto you, Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment? Behold the birds of the heaven, that they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life? And why are ye anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
Although Easter lilies are symbols of new life and purity, their history of getting to America is actually rooted in war. Easter lilies are native to a few islands south of Japan. They were brought to England in 1777 and later Bermuda, where they were produced on a large scale and earned their first nickname, the Bermuda lily. After a virus wiped them from Bermuda, Japan was once again the only source of Easter lilies.
Following World War I, solider Louis Houghton brought a suitcase of lily bulbs from Japan back to the U.S., specifically to his home state of Oregon. Houghton gave the lily bulbs to his horticultural friends, and soon enough, the area along the California-Oregon border, which happened to have prime growing conditions for the flowers, became known as the Easter Lily Capital of the World. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese shipment of Easter lilies was cut off, which brought high demand to the Oregon and California growers, giving the flowers yet another nickname—White Gold.
Oregon and California now produce the majority of the world’s Easter lilies, although there are only about 10 growers left. Easter lilies are difficult to grow, and the process to the final product is a long, precise one. The bulbs have to be cultivated in fields for at least three years, during which they require care, moving, and tending as they progress through growth stages. Once the bulbs are ready to be shipped, they’re placed under strict temperature restrictions to ensure they bloom on time for Easter, which can be a gamble, considering Easter doesn’t fall on the same day each year. So when you pick up an Easter lily at the store this year, keep in mind the years of work that got it to you. Pretty neat.
Now that you know about the Easter lily’s origin, we’ve got some tips for how to care for your Easter lilies, from our resident Grumpy Gardener, Steve Bender:
“Churches and greenhouses all across the South are overflowing with Easter lilies (Lilium longiflorum) right now, but what should you do with the flowers after Easter? Plant them, of course. Unlike poinsettias, which are hardy only in the Tropical South (USDA Zones 10 through 11), Easter lilies are perennial everywhere. Depending on the selection, they grow 1 to 3 feet tall and bear clusters of very fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers up to 7 inches long. Plant them in a sunny spot with well-drained soil at the same depth as they were situated while growing in their containers. Then spread several inches of mulch around the bases of the flowers. To avoid viruses, don’t plant Easter lilies with other lilies.”
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Whether you’re picking up an Easter lily to gift, decorate, or just admire, you can appreciate the arduous passage it took to you and keep it growing for years.