During the Easter season, homes and churches alike are adorned with the gorgeous, fragrant white blooms we know as Easter lilies. The plant's scientific name is Lilium longiflorum , but along the way, it picked up the common name "Easter lily." Have you ever thought about where these flowers came from, or how they got their monikers? 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. Read on for information about the symbolism, care, and cultivation of these special springtime blooms.
Easter Lily Symbolism
There are several theories about the symbolism that surrounds the Easter lily, and much of it is related to the Christian religion. The flowers are often referred to as "white-robed apostles of hope," and they symbolize 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 bulbs that grow 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.
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. For example, 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."
Easter Lily History
Although Easter lilies are symbols of new life and purity, their history of getting to America is actually quite a long one. Easter lilies are native to several islands south of Japan. They were brought to England in 1777 and later made their way to 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, a solider named 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 horticulturally-minded 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. 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 the growth stages. Once the bulbs are ready to be shipped, they're placed under strict temperature restrictions to ensure they bloom in time for Easter, which can be a gamble, considering that 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 care and attention required to get it to you.
Easter Lily Care
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 in more places (USDA Zones 8 through 11)." Each selection grows a bit differently, but typically Easter lilies will grow between one to three feet tall and bloom in clusters of extremely fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers, which can reach up to seven inches long.
The Grumpy Gardener recommends "planting 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."
For more information about Easter flowers, read up on these different types of lilies that can bring color and fragrance to the garden all year long. They can be harmful to animals if ingested, so read up on plant safety before adding them to your garden.
Whether you're picking up an Easter lily to give as a gift, use as decoration in your home, or just admire in the garden shop, you can appreciate the symbolism it holds and learn how to help it thrive.
University of California. Easter Flowers. April 17, 2020.