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April 9, 2023

Spring is busting out all over in the Upstate of South Carolina, to paraphrase a line from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. When Easter arrives, our landscape is in bloom. Azaleas display their colors from Delaware White to Hersey Red and many pastel hues in between. In our garden, one of my favorites is Conversation, a pink variety with large pink blossoms.

Riding through the residential areas of our burg, I have noticed modest cottages and palatial estates with lawns showing new green bordered by colorful shrubs. Some spring bulbs, from early-blooming tulips and iris to late-blooming daffodils and hyacinths, combine to create pockets of dancing beauty. Dogwood trees seem to coincide with Easter. In our garden, these lovely trees are in full bloom.

When I was a lad, my Mama usually wore an Easter corsage. It was her Easter gift from my dad. Mama’s pretty flowers were often small cymbidium orchards pinned to her favorite aqua Easter attire.

The flower most identified with Easter is, of course, the Easter lily.

I am among a number of people who are allergic to the pollen of Easter lilies. My sinuses stop up, my eyes itch, and I clear my throat at regular intervals. Decongestants and antihistamines have helped some. The problem would be completely avoidable except for the fact that I am a pastor. The churches I have served have had long traditions of decorating the sanctuary at Easter with beautiful white lilies.

 At the church where I retired, the folks on our flower committee went the extra mile trying to help me. In the same way that a castrated bull becomes a steer or a neutered stallion becomes a gelding, the volunteers removed the stamens from the lily blossoms. Since these pollen producers are considered the male parts of the flower, their removal rendered the lilies hypo-allergenic. Thank you, dear friends, for emasculating the lilies.  

Florists and garden shops are usually well-supplied with Easter lilies. These fragrant white flowers are often given as gifts to hospital patients and nursing home residents. Some cemetery plots will be adorned with lilies. By Easter Sunday morning, the lovely white flowers are traditionally 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 spilled down from the sky. The part that remained above the earth formed the Milky Way. Where drops of milk fell to the ground, 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 bouquets of white lilies to Mary and the infant Jesus.

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. The Easter lily is a symbol of purity and hope. They were said to be growing in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before his arrest.

If you enter a church sanctuary either in person or via live stream on Easter Sunday, you may see lilies at the foot of the cross, around the altar, or near the communion table. These white trumpet-shaped flowers signal the resurrection. 

The Easter lily, Lilium longiforum, is native to the southern islands of Japan. In the 1880s, 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. Before 1941, the majority of the Easter lily bulbs were exported to the United States from Japan. Once the United States declared war on Japan and entered World War II, the dependence on Japanese-produced bulbs was eliminated, and commercial bulb cultivation 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. By 1945, there were about 1,200 growers producing bulbs up and down the Pacific coast. The Easter lily bulbs were called White Gold.

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

 Lily bulbs are harvested in the fall, then 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. Form, color, and fragrance contribute to the charm of garden lilies. Good drainage is the key to success with lilies. Raised garden beds amended with good soil are best in our red clay Piedmont. 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 subsequent years the transplanted lilies cannot be expected to bloom by Easter. They usually bloom a month later, around Mother’s Day. Given the fact that the beautiful white flowers are a symbol for Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mother’s Day seems quite an appropriate time for them to shine.

The flower committee at my former church did precisely that. They figured out how to decorate the sanctuary with Easter lilies without inflicting a pollen-induced allergic reaction on the pastor, the choir, and other susceptible worshipers. The church was adorned as usual for Holy Week.

But, on Easter Sunday, all of the lilies were silk flowers firmly planted in plaster.

According to the Gospel accounts, the reaction of those first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus was not joy but fear. The Gospel of Mark records, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:3 NIV) Trembling, bewilderment, and fear – all are symptomatic of anxiety.

Many of us live in a culture of anxiety. This Easter, we recall the words of Jesus. “Therefore, I say to you, do not worry about your life.” (Matthew 6:25 NKJV) Later, in that same passage from the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Consider the lilies of the field.” (Matthew 6:28). This year, one way to discover inner peace and calm is to consider the Easter lilies. May you be blessed with quiet serenity on this Holy Day. Blessed Easter!

Below is a link to a brief time-lapse video from The National Geographic Society to aid your Easter meditation.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Excerpts from this column will be in the forthcoming book

Cultivating the Spirit on One Acre of Red Clay

To be published later this spring.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please consider sharing flowers with someone you care about. Thank you.

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