University of Vermont
Spring News Article
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
We can thank the two world wars for most the world production of the Bermuda
lily--better known today as the Easter lily--in this country.
Native to the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan, this lily (Lilium
longiflorum) grows in coral (limestone) rock pockets by the sea.
Due to ocean currents, this area where these grow naturally is
tropical. In 1794, Carl Peter Thunberg-- a physician (most
famous now as a plant explorer) for the Dutch East India Company who was
stationed in Japan—first described this plant in Western literature.
It was first described in one of Japan’s oldest gardening books, published
Thunberg sent bulbs of this lily to England in 1819, where it soon became
popular during Easter. It is the Madonna or Resurrection lily (L.
candidum) though, native to southern Europe across to Asia, which was
the true white lily of the bible. Among the many biblical references,
one mentions that these sprang up in the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ’s
tears fell to the ground during his last hours of sorrow and prayer.
Other stories depict, and paintings show, lilies with the Virgin Mary.
Missionaries and sailors carried the Easter lily to Bermuda in 1853, where
much commercial bulb production during the late 1800’s led to the other name
for this bulbous plant. Production peaked there in 1896, and began a
subsequent decline due to a virus infecting plants. The Bermuda
production had ceased by 1925.
During the Bermuda decline, production shifted to Japan where it continued
until the outbreak of World War II. Japan had already been exporting
bulbs to the United States as early as 1876. In the early 1900’s, bulbs were
exported here from Formosa too.
With the outbreak of this war, bulbs were of course scarce so the price
increased greatly. The few with bulbs in this country, who were
growing them more for a hobby, began growing “White Gold” as they were
called, for business. World War I also was integral to this bulb
production and its arrival on the southern Oregon coast, as it was the
soldier in this war-- Louis Houghton-- who first brought a suitcase of these
bulbs there to his friends.
After World War II, there were about 1,200 commercial bulb growers all along
the Pacific coast. Today, the western area along the California-Oregon
border is often called the “Easter Lily Capital of the World” as it produces
about 99 percent of all the bulbs grown for the potted Easter lily market,
and those approximately 10 million bulbs by only four family firms.
Production has become focused there due to the ideal combination of soils
and climate for these bulbs. To help solve bulb production problems,
these four growers even have their own research station. Virtually all
the market for these bulbs is in the U.S. and Canada.
So when did Easter lilies, a plant that naturally blooms in summer in most
of this country, become a symbol of Easter here? For this we can thank
a woman visiting Bermuda in the 1880s, Ms. Thomas Sargent. She loved
the flowers blooming naturally in Bermuda in the spring, so brought some
bulbs back home to Philadelphia. A local nurseryman there, William
Harris, began growing and forcing them into spring bloom, and selling them
to other florists. Many began buying this flower for Easter, as they
do today, with it symbolizing the Resurrection.
Most all Easter lilies are the cultivar (cultivated variety) ‘Nellie White’,
selected by a grower James White and named for his wife. Bulb
production begins in the fall, when scales or bulblets are planted.
The lily bulb is actually composed of many scales—specialized leaves below
ground that store food. These can be separated and planted.
Bulblets are mini-bulbs produced along the underground stem which can be
removed and planted. Both bulblets and scales will form new
bulbs. Each fall bulbs are dug, the largest packed to sell, the
smallest planted back to grow another year.
So how are Easter lilies tricked or “forced” into bloom in time for
Easter? Once greenhouse growers receive bulbs in the late fall, the
bulbs are potted and placed in non-freezing cool temperatures. The
bulbs must receive about 1000 hours of such moist cold in order to bloom,
although additional light after they sprout can substitute for some
Once the lily bulbs sprout, they are closely monitored by growers in order
to time them for Easter. This can be difficult, as Easter can vary
from March 22 to April 25. Temperature is used to speed up or slow
down the crop. As each plant can respond a bit differently, many
plants traditionally have been moved back and forth between warm and cold
greenhouses, so are sometimes called a “wheelbarrow crop.” Growers
track growth using such techniques as “leaf counting” in which rate of leaf
unfolding is recorded.
When buying a lily, look for a plant with flowers in various stages of bloom
from buds to open or partially opened flowers. Foliage should be dense, rich
green in color, and extend all the way down to the soil line (a good
indication of a healthy root system). Look for a well-proportioned plant,
one that is about two times as high as the pot. You also should check the
flowers, foliage, and buds for signs of yellowing (improper culture),
insects, or disease.
At home, keep your lily away from drafts and drying heat sources such as
wood stoves or heating ducts. Bright, indirect light is best with daytime
temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees (F). Water the plant only when the soil
feels dry to the touch, but don’t overwater. If the pot is in foil, make
sure water doesn’t collect and remain in the foil; this will keep the soil
To prolong the life of the blossoms, remove the yellow anthers
(pollen-bearing pods) found in the center of each flower. If you get this
staining pollen on fabrics, don’t rub it off, but remove it with sticky
If you have cats, especially those that like to chew on leaves, keep your
lily away from them. Any part of this lily, as with many of its lily
relatives, can cause kidney failure in cats. Eating even one leaf can
be fatal to a cat with them stopping eating, vomiting, and becoming
lethargic. If you think a cat has eaten a leaf, call a veterinarian
immediately as prompt treatment often can be successful.
It’s difficult to get an Easter lily to rebloom indoors without repotting
and special care over several years. If you live in a zone 6 area or
warmer (0 to -10 degrees average winter minimum), perhaps even a protected
location in a colder zone 5 site, you might get your plant to overwinter if
planted outdoors after spring frosts. If so, they should provide you
with summer blooms in a couple years, when they’re established and regain
energy from their indoor forcing.
Return to Perry's Perennial