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Consider the Easter Lily

April 6, 2009

I am allergic to the pollen of Easter lilies. My sinuses stop up, my eyes itch, and I am constantly clearing my throat. Decongestants and antihistamines have helped some. The problem would be completely avoidable except for the fact that I am a pastor. The church I serve has a long tradition of decorating the Sanctuary at Easter with beautiful white lilies.


The ladies on our flower committee have gone the extra mile in trying to help me. For the past several years, they have removed the stamens from the blooms. Since these pollen-producers are considered the male parts of the flower, I suppose the resulting blossoms are somewhat like steers and geldings in the animal world. Thank you, flower committee for emasculating the lilies.   


 Florists and garden shops are well supplied with Easter lilies. These fragrant white flowers will be given as gifts to hospital patients and nursing home residents. Cemetery plots will be adorned with lilies. By Easter Sunday morning, the traditional white flowers will be in full display.


 According to Roman mythology, the white lily is associated with Juno, the queen of the gods. It is said that when Queen Juno was feeding her baby son Hercules, some of her milk fell from the sky. The part that remained above the earth formed the Milky Way. Where drops of milk fell to earth, pure white lilies bloomed.


 In Greek mythology, the lily was dedicated to the goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus. 


 The lily was a popular flower in ancient Jewish civilization. The flower is mentioned several times in Hebrew scripture. 


 In Christian art, the angel Gabriel is pictured giving the Virgin Mary a bouquet of pure white lilies when he announces that she is to be the mother of the Christ child.  In other paintings, early saints are depicted bringing vases filled with white lilies to Mary and the infant Jesus.


 The Easter lily is a symbol of purity and hope. They were said to be growing in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed prior to his arrest.  A legend says that when the women visited the tomb of Jesus following the resurrection, they found the grave empty and a bouquet of white lilies where the body of Jesus had previously been placed.


 If you enter a church Sanctuary on Sunday, you may see lilies at the foot of the cross, around the altar or the communion table, or in the church foyer. These white trumpet-shaped flowers signal the resurrection. 


 The Easter lily, Lilium longiforum, is native to the southern islands of Japan. In the 1880’s, lilies were cultivated in Bermuda, and bulbs were shipped to the United States. Around the turn of the century, the Japanese took over the growing of Easter lilies. Prior to 1941, the majority of the Easter lily bulbs were exported to the United States from Japan. World War II eliminated the dependence on Japanese-produced bulbs and commercial bulb production shifted to the United States.


The Easter lily industry is an American success story. It all began with a World War I veteran, Louis Houghton. He brought a suitcase full of hybrid lily bulbs to the south coast of Oregon in 1919. Houghton freely distributed bulbs to his friends and neighbors.


After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the source of bulbs was abruptly cut off. The value of lily bulbs skyrocketed. Many who were growing lilies as a hobby went into business. The Easter lily bulbs were called White Gold. By 1945, there were about 1,200 growers producing bulbs up and down the Pacific coast.


Producing quality lily bulbs proved to be an exact and demanding science with specific climatic requirements. Over the years, the total number of bulb producers dwindled to just ten farms. All are located in a small, isolated coastal region straddling the Oregon-California border. This region, called the Easter Lily Capital of the World, produces nearly all of the bulbs for the Easter lily market.


Bulbs are harvested in the fall, packed, and shipped to commercial greenhouses. They are planted in pots and, under controlled conditions, are forced into bloom for the Easter holiday.

Nellie White is the bulb most commonly used for potted Easter lilies. James White developed the hybrid and named it after his wife. Nellie White has large, white trumpet shaped flowers with a soft yellow throat.


Lilies are among the most dramatic and easy to grow flowers in the home garden. Good drainage is the key for success with lilies. Raised garden beds amended with good soil are best in our red clay Piedmont.  Form, color, and fragrance contribute to the charm of garden lilies. Tall stately Asiatic lilies and fragrant Oriental lilies are the two favorite varieties for the Upstate. The corms, also called bulbs, may be planted in the fall or the spring. Asiatic and Oriental lilies grow best in full sunlight.


Nellie White Easter lilies also do quite well in our area. They can be transplanted immediately after the blooms have died. 

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Consider the lilies….” Our flower committee has done just that. They have figured out how to decorate the Sanctuary with Easter lilies without inflicting pollen on the pastor. The church will be adorned as usual for Holy Week this year. 


But, this Easter all of the lilies will be silk.


Kirk H. Neely

© April 2009





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