The Easter lily is a recognizable symbol of one of the most holy days of the year. I know that my church will be filled with these beautiful trumpet-shaped flowers that seem to announce both the Easter holiday and the beginning of spring.
Mixed with the lilies, there will be tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. A beautiful bouquet of riotous spring colors. I’ll have to remember to take extra antihistamine before church on Easter Sunday — it is hard to sing in the choir with exploding sinuses.
The white petals and sepals of the Easter lily symbolize purity and are a fitting symbol for the Easter holiday. You’ll also notice that the flower parts are in multiples of three (a sign that they belong to the monocot plant group that includes grasses and other narrow-leaved plants).
While it looks like they have six petals, they really have three petals and three identical sepals (usually the leaf-like covering that protects the bud), six stamens (the male parts) and three sections in the pistil (the female part). While this is a part of their biology, it is also seen as a religious symbol of the Trinity.
In the early 1900s, Mrs. S.R. Allen wrote:
Somewhere while the Easter lilies
Swing their perfumed censers white,
Softened rays of sunlight falling
In lines aslant, and warm, and bright,
Shall gild the altar, nave and chancel;
Rest with tender roseate ray
On the font, enwreathed with lilies
For baptismal rites today.
Another pilgrim on the journey
From the cradle to the tomb,
Shall receive a name and blessing
While the Easter lilies bloom.
Lilies are found throughout history, literature and myth. Lilies, though not specifically Easter lilies (there wasn’t an Easter yet) got a mention in the Sermon on the Mount, where it was announced to, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet … Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
The Easter lily, or Lilium longiflorum, is native to southern Japan. According to an article by Texas A&M University Extension, about 90 percent of the bulbs grown for commercial greenhouse production are grown in a very small coastal area at the California and Oregon border.
It can take three to four years for an Easter lily bulb to reach its mature size. The bulbs are then shipped across the country to greenhouses and nurseries to be grown in pots for the Easter season. Most lilies are sold in a two-week window leading up to Easter. In 2012, over $40 million worth of wholesale Easter lily bulbs were sold in the U.S. and Canada.
These plants are most commonly grown in greenhouses and sold as potted plants mainly because they must be forced to bloom at the exact right time for Easter sales. They are expected to flower early in the year and at different times. The date of Easter moves from year to year, so conditions have to be strictly controlled to make sure the lilies are in bloom at the right time. Nobody wants an Independence Day lily.
(About that Easter date: the Council of Nicaea, one of the first church-wide meetings of bishops in 325 A.D. established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox, which is also called the Pashal moon.)
To extend the life of your blooms, be sure to pick plants with buds in various stages of development — from nearly blooming to tight buds. Take any decorative covering off of the pot, because being water-logged is a sure-fire way to shorten lifespan. Keep the soil moderately moist, not too dry or too wet.
If you are really serious about longevity, cut the stamens off before they produce pollen. Not only will it keep from staining the petals, but if the flower is accidentally pollinated it will begin to fade (the production and release of pollen also takes energy away from the flower).
I have seen gardeners take the lilies and plant them outdoors after they have faded. You’ll want to cut off the spent blooms if you do this to divert more energy to the bulb. If you plan on planting them, you need to make sure that you plant them in well-drained, loose soil. They will not do well in our native clay soils. You also need to make sure you mulch them in the winter to protect them from the cold.