March 24, 2013

The lily of the season

Richard Gast, Cornell Ag Connection

— 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.

In the home, Easter lilies prefer indirect, bright, natural light or filtered sunlight and moderately cool temperatures, no higher than 68 degrees. Keeping them cool at night (some horticulturalists recommend 40 to 50 degrees) will prolong the period of bloom. Removing the pollen-bearing anthers (the yellow tips) from the six stamens as soon as possible after the flowers open will help prolong bloom life since the flowers will not become pollinated. The soil should be kept moderately moist and well drained.

Easter lilies are not fully hardy here, but I have heard of them surviving to bloom successfully for many years after being replanted outdoors in sheltered settings (i.e. near the foundation of a house). If you would like to try to resurrect your Easter lilies outdoors, cut away declining blooms as they wither. Once the last bloom has been removed, place the plants in a sunny window and continue to water whenever the soil becomes slightly dry, being careful not to overwater. The leaves will yellow and die back.

Once the danger of frost has past, cut the stems back to within a few inches of the soil surface. Choose a protected, comparably sunny location for your garden bed and, making sure the roots remain spread out and down, transplant bulbs into the garden three to four inches below ground level in fairly rich, well-drained soil, leaving at least 12 to 18 inches between bulbs. Mound an additional inch or two of soil over the bulbs and water the bed thoroughly but carefully, so as not to disturb the soil or leave air pockets. With a little luck, you will soon begin to see new growth.

Occasionally, plants will produce a few flowers again in late summer or early fall. It’s more likely that you will have to wait until the following summer.

Topping the soil with a thin layer of mulch will help keep the roots cool during a hot summer. You might plant a low ground cover of shallow-rooted annuals or perennials along with your lilies.

To overwinter bulbs, mulch the bed with straw, leaves or pine needles and remove the mulch carefully in the spring. You can also dig bulbs in fall and store them indoors. A cautionary note, Easter lilies are poisonous to cats.

Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214, email