Press-Republican

Columns

March 24, 2013

The lily of the season

Easter season is upon us. It’s a time of joy and celebration, of religious significance, and of the promise of spring and the summer months ahead.

Perhaps the most widely shared symbol is the Easter lily, Lilium longiflorum, with its magnificent white flowers and fragrance.

It is said that lilies were found growing in the garden of Gethsemane, and that lovely white lilies grew where Jesus’s blood, sweat and tears fell in the hours before his death. For Easter Sunday, many churches cover their altars with lilies to commemorate the Resurrection and remember loved ones who have passed away.

Easter lilies are the fourth largest crop in wholesale value in the U.S. potted-plant market. I find that remarkable when you consider they are sold for only two or three weeks each year. Poinsettias, mums and azaleas rank first, second and third. Widely grown Easter lily cultivars include Ace, Croft and the Estate variety, which can grow to be three feet tall. Nellie White, a popular cultivar that produces large trumpet-like flowers, was created by lily grower James White, who named the hybrid after his wife.

Easter lilies are native to the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan and, prior to World War II, when commercial production shifted to the United States, the vast majority of potted Easter lily bulbs sold in the United States were imported from Japan. Today, the superior quality of U.S. bulbs is recognized around the world.

Bermuda was a center for production of Easter lilies from the 1850s until 1898, when a virus and nematode infestation wiped out the industry. In 1919, Louis Houghton brought the first hybrid Bermuda bulbs to the United States. They were planted along Oregon’s southern seacoast.

Today, almost all the bulbs grown for the potted Easter lily market are produced on just 10 farms along the California-Oregon border. Every year, from late September through early October, these growers harvest roughly 12 million bulbs, which they ship to commercial greenhouses. The bulbs are then planted in pots and “forced” indoors to flower just in time for Easter.

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