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All about the Easter lily: purity, hope and life

It’s fascinating how particular plants become associated with certain holidays and seasons. The Easter lily with its gorgeous, fragrant white blooms has come to symbolize the Easter season. However, few people know how these flowers came to play their part. Have you ever thought about where they are from or how they got their name?

Easter lilies, native to the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, were introduced to the Bermuda island in the mid-19th century when General Russell Hastings made Bermuda his permanent home.

white-lily-968099 1920 Before moving to Bermuda, Hastings formed a partnership with a florist in New York and established a business raising Easter lily bulbs for export to the United States. He cultivated around 300,000 Easter lilies a year, shipping them to New York, England, and Holland. There it was named the “Bermuda lily,” but eventually changed to “Easter lily” when the spring-blooming flower was brought to Philadelphia and propagated as a symbol of Easter.  

When the Bermuda lily industry was crippled by disease in 1899 which devastated the crop, production moved back to Japan making them the sole producer once again. Lily production did not start in the United States until World War I when a soldier, Louis Houghton, was so captivated by the flower that he returned to his home state of Oregon with a suitcase full of bulbs. Houghton began handing them out to his family and friends to plant. After Pearl Harbor, Japan was cut off, which brought high demand to the Oregon and California growers. By 1945, over one thousand West Coast growers were producing bulbs for the commercial market. This area along the California-Oregon border became known as the Easter Lily Capital of the World.  

One of the most significant challenges Easter lily producers face is to get the plants to bloom just in time for Easter! The secret to scheduling the Easter lily crop is proper temperature management at each stage of development. Unusual weather patterns, along with the shifting Easter date, are always part of the challenge.

There are theories about Christian symbolism surrounding the Easter lily. One theory is that as Eve left the Garden of Eden, she shed tears of repentance, and from those remorseful tears sprung up lilies. Often referred to as “white-robed apostles of hope,” their color symbolizes the purity of Christ, who was free from sin. Their trumpet shape represents a trumpet sounding the message that Jesus has risen and the nature in which they grow is symbolic of the resurrection. From ugly bulbs that are underground for three years or longer, they become beautiful flowers. This process is reminiscent of Christ’s resurrection.

The Easter lily serves as a lovely reminder that it is a time for rejoicing and celebrating. For many, the gorgeous trumpet-shaped white flowers symbolize purity, virtue, innocence, hope, and life — the spiritual essence of Easter.

Melissa Jones is an experienced mass market and e-commerce buyer with over 15 years in the floriculture industry.