Friday, March 21, 2008

Easter Lily History


Easter lilies are grown to be ready for Easter.

In last week’s column we looked into some of the common Easter traditions – how they got started and what they mean today. Another Easter tradition confronted us when we went shopping a few days ago: Easter lilies! How did a tradition like this get started, we wondered? Many people bring these plants with the large white flowers into their homes a week or so before Easter. Churches also use them as decorations. What does it all mean?

After a little research we found an interesting story. Traditionally, the white Easter lily flowers symbolized purity, virtue and innocence. They are often called the “white-robed apostles of hope.” Lilies are said to have been found in the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus’ agony. Legend has it that they sprung up where Jesus’ drops of sweat fell to the ground. Many churches carry this idea forward in the placement of Easter lilies in their sanctuaries, commemorating the resurrection and hope of eternal life.

The tradition of the Easter lily, however, is one of the newest Easter traditions. The lily tradition dates back to around the 1800s. It came in with the rise in the Easter observances in America after the Civil War. Even then it took time to find widespread acceptance. The American lilies available then bloomed in the early summer. They could be forced to bloom earlier using hothouse conditions but it was considered more trouble than it was worth. Decorating with Easter lilies did not happen until an early blooming lily was imported.

The current use of the Easter lily is really less of a religious tradition and more of a marketing success story. The lily itself is native to the southern islands of Japan. In the 1880s lily bulbs were grown in Bermuda and shipped to hothouses in the United States for growing and flowering in time for Easter. In the early 1900s, Japanese production of lily bulbs undercut the Bermuda growers and so by the 1920s Japan dominated the Easter lily market. World War II, of course, changed all that.

American production of Easter lily bulbs began when a World War I veteran, Louis Houghton, brought lily bulbs to the southern coast area of Oregon around 1919. By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, production was already established. As a result of the war, lily bulb prices skyrocketed and many early growers, who were doing it mostly as a hobby, went into the business. By the end of the war, in 1945, there were an estimated 1,200 growers up and down the Pacific coast, from as far south as Long Beach, California all the way to Canada.

But it seems that producing quality bulbs was harder than it looked. Easter lilies have very specific growing requirements which require enough rain, sun, and just the right temperatures. Today there are only 10 farms that grow lily bubs. They are all located in the coastal region of the California-Oregon border from Smith River, California to Brookings, Oregon. This region is called the “Easter Lily Capital of the World.” Almost all the Easter lily bulbs used for potted Easter lilies are produced here. Even after World War II was over, the Japanese growers have never been able to regain any substantial market share.

We enjoy having our Easter lily on the window ledge. However the tradition came to be, Easter lilies are beautiful and charming plants that we think deserve to be admired.

2 comments:

Jason Dittle said...
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Jason Dittle said...
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