The pure-white, flared trumpets of Easter lily flowers are a time-honored symbol of the hope, purity and innocence embodied in the Easter tradition.
Lilies grow each year from scaly bulbs deep in the earth, a resurrection if you will, to form majestic plants with sturdy, dense green foliage and radiant white flowers touched with sweet fragrance.
The Easter lily is Lilium longiflorum, a plant native to the islands of southern Japan. In recent years, other types of lilies with more brightly colored flowers - Asiatic and oriental varieties - have become increasingly popular as potted plants, but the white Easter lily remains the traditional floral symbol of Easter.
Prior to World War II, most Easter lily bulbs were exported from Japan. During and after the war, bulb production shifted to the United States.
One small area in particular, along the coast of California and Oregon, where climate and soil are ideal for growing Easter lilies, continues to dominate as the source of almost all commercially grown Easter lily bulbs.
The plants are grown outdoors in fields for several years and then harvested in the fall. Bulblets and one-year bulbs, called yearlings, are carefully replanted to grow on for future harvest.
Larger, commercially sized bulbs are shipped to greenhouse growers across the United States and Canada, who then force the bulbs into growth to bloom in time for Easter.
This can be an extremely tricky process to get right. It requires meticulous attention to timing and temperature, since Easter falls on a different day each year.
Easter is the first Sunday that follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox, and can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. This year, Easter is almost as late as it can be; and it won't be this late again until 2038.
If you give or receive an Easter lily, here are some tips for selection and care:
• Choose a medium to compact plant, with a sturdy stem that doesn't need staking; regularly spaced, healthy dark green foliage to the base; and four to six or more flower buds.
• Look for a plant with only one or two partly open flowers (the "puffy white" stage) and three or more tight, unopened buds. Already opened flowers won't last long, but the puffy buds will open within a few days in the warmth of the home, and tight buds will open over several days.
• Be wary of plants displayed in plastic sleeves. These are meant for protective use during shipping and should be removed for display. Leaving the sleeves on may encourage quicker deterioration and root rot from waterlogged soils.
• Keep the plant in bright but indirect sunlight. Direct sunlight causes flowers to fade more quickly.
• Keep the soil moist but not saturated. Drain excess water that accumulates inside any decorative foil around the pot.
• Keep the lily out of drafts and away from the direct heat and dry air of heating ducts, appliances or fireplaces.
• This lily prefers cooler temperatures; daytime temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees and slightly cooler night-time temperatures will help to prolong flowering.
• As the flowers open, cut off the yellow anthers before the pollen begins to shed. This lengthens flower life and prevents the yellow pollen from staining everything, including the white flower.
• Remove faded flowers as they wither, including the short stalk (petiole) attaching the flower to the main stalk.
After all the flowers have faded, you can plant the Easter lily outdoors. Because it has been forced, it is very hard to get it to rebloom in a pot, so if you are not planting it outside, it's best to discard or recycle the plant.
The Easter lily is not reliably hardy in our climate, but it may survive if you plant it in a sheltered spot and mulch it well in winter. It may not flower again, which it would do naturally in June or July in its native habitat, but it does have attractive form and foliage.
Annette MaCoy is the consumer horticulture extension educator and master gardener coordinator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County. If you have garden questions, contact Annette at 240-6500 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.