Closing my eyes and breathing deeply, I relax and ride the flood of memories back to the early springs of my youth. Entering from the sparkling clear - yet still crisp - outdoors, I’m struck by the warm, humid, atmosphere and enveloped in a sweet, earthy scent. Before me lies my father’s greenhouse and benches full of brilliant white Easter Lilies.
I realize now how much I took them for granted, surrounded by them as we were for several weeks each year. Arm loads were sold and delivered each day, decked out in brightly colored foil and ribbons. We always had at least one in the house. At an early age, I was shown how to carefully pinch off the stamens to prolong the blooming time and keep the bright yellow pollen from staining the white petals. Or worse yet - Mom’s fancy tablecloth. I learned to check them daily, gently poking a finger in the pot to see if they were moist. Those who know me well notice that I still do these things - no matter whose lily it is. Old habits die hard...
The plant we know as the Easter Lily is native to the southern islands of Japan. In the 1880s Japan shipped it to Bermuda, where it was widely grown and known as the Bermuda Lily, but the majority of bulbs exported to the U.S. came from Japan. After World War I, an American soldier returned home to the southern coast of Oregon with a suitcase full of hybrid lily bulbs. These he gave to family and friends; because the climate there was similar to the plant’s native habitat, the growing conditions were ideal and the lilies flourished. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Japanese source of bulbs was cut off from the west and the value of lily bulbs skyrocketed. West Coast growers began producing bulbs (referred to them as “White Gold”) for the commercial market, and today 95% of these bulbs grown in the world are grown in a narrow coastal region straddling the California-Oregon border.
The journey from propagation to bloom is not an easy one for the Easter Lily. Bulbs require 2 years to reach saleable maturity and are handled as many as 40 times before finally being harvested in the fall, packed, and shipped to greenhouses. They do not normally bloom in the spring - science and horticulture have altered their natural blooming sequence to coincide with Easter. Growers must carefully determine when to plant and start forcing them, under controlled conditions, to bloom. This is made more difficult because Easter varies in date from year to year. Marketing occurs only for about 2 weeks before Easter and blooms are short-lived by nature, so there is very little margin for error in timing. They are worth the trouble.
Often called the “white-robed apostles of hope”, lilies were said to be found growing in the Garden of Gethsemane after Christ’s agony. Tradition has it that the beautiful white lilies sprung up where drops of Christ’s sweat fell to the ground in his final hours of sorrow and deep distress. We continue this tradition at Easter time by banking our altar and surrounding the cross with masses of them.
From the fields to the greenhouse to our church and homes, the Easter Lily remains the traditional, time-honored flower of Easter. Symbolic of the resurrection, it rises from earthy grave as scaly bulb, and blooms into a majestic flower that embodies the beauty, grace and tranquility of the season. For many, the beautiful trumpet-shaped flowers symbolize purity, virtue, innocence, hope and life - the spiritual essence of Easter.
I deeply inhale their rich scent - and feel my spirit soar.
“Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!”