The majestic trumpet-shaped Easter lily seems to herald the message of the season. The blooms have been a part of Easter festivities since the late 1880s.
We have an American tourist to thank for that. In the early 1880s, Mrs. Thomas Sergeant fell in love with the plants while on a spring visit to Bermuda. She took a few bulbs back to Philadelphia where a local nurseryman began growing them. They became very popular and by the late 1890s Bermuda was producing most of the bulbs used in the trade, hence an alternative name of Bermuda lily.
Production moved to Japan after a virus destroyed the Bermuda production, but ceased there abruptly at the beginning of World War II. It then moved to a small area of coastal northern California and southwest Oregon, where 95 percent of the world’s bulbs are produced.
While the lilies bloomed naturally in the spring in Bermuda, they normally don’t bloom in our more northern climates until midsummer. To get them to bloom in the spring, growers carefully manipulate temperature and light in their greenhouses to trick the plants into blooming early. An added challenge for the growers is that Easter can fall between March 22 and April 25, which means even more tweaking.
When buying an Easter lily, look for plants that have both tight buds and almost open flowers. The foliage should be a dense, dark green color that covers the entire stem. Skip any plants that show signs of yellowing or drooping as this is an indication of poor care. The plants should be about twice as tall as the diameter of their pot.
Keep the plants in a bright, indirectly lit cool (60 to 65 degrees) place away from drafts and heat sources. Remove any wrapping on the pot and water only when the soil feels dry to the touch. Lilies are sensitive to wet roots so remove any standing water after the pot has drained. Pinch out the yellow anthers to remove the pollen and extend the life of the bloom. To keep fallen pollen from staining, remove it with a piece of sticky tape. Be aware: Easter lily leaves can be toxic to animals.
Unfortunately planting Easter lilies out in our Inland Northwest gardens is, at best, iffy. Most of the bulbs commonly used in the floral industry are hardy to U.S. Department of Agriculture zone 6 which occurs only in the warmest parts of the region.
But take heart; in recent years plant breeders have been working on crossing the Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum) with its close cousins the Asiatic lilies, to get the hardiness and color range of the Asiatic lilies and the fragrance of the Easter lilies. These hybrids, called LA hybrids, are hardy to USDA zone 5 and can be planted like other lilies in a sunny spot with well-drained soil and ample water. They will however not bloom until the middle of July.