Easter is one of the year’s most important holidays. Since the beginning of the Christian era, Easter has represented the resurrection of Jesus, but it actually evolved from a much older pagan festival celebrating the return of spring. Even the word Easter comes from Eastre (also Eostre or Ostara), the Germanic goddess of spring.
That explains why Easter is traditionally celebrated with flowers, the symbol par excellence of renewal.
Historically, the three main Easter flowers were the English daisy (Bellis perennis), the narcissus or daffodil (Narcissus spp.) and the pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris, also Anemone pulsatilla) — pasque comes from Old French and means Easter—because they naturally bloom at Easter in Europe, where the tradition of Easter flowers was born.
Today, however, even if narcissus and other spring bulbs are still sold abundantly on this occasion, the most widely available Easter flower is the Easter Lily (Lilium longiflorum), a stately plant with beautiful and fragrant white trumpet flowers. As a result stores seem to magically fill with thousands of white lilies in the weeks before Easter. In fact, though, there is nothing truly magical about it, for this concentrated bloom is the end result of long months of careful planning and preparation.
Here’s how nurserymen force Easter lilies for the market.
Planning Months Ahead
For nurserymen, Easter is by far the most complex holiday to prepare for. Unlike Christmas, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, three other occasions where flowers are sold in large quantities, the date we celebrate Easter moves around the calendar. It takes place on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. So Easter can take place as early as March 22nd and as late as April 27th.
For nurserymen who have to get their lilies to bloom at just the right date, that’s a major headache! Forcing lilies to bloom is not just a question of potting them up at the right time, but also involves taking into consideration the influence of day length, temperature, bulb size (large bulbs bloom earlier than smaller ones) and even variety, as there are different cultivars of Easter lily, some naturally earlier to bloom than others.
All these factors have to be carefully assessed to determine when a given plant will likely flower and the annual production schedule then has to be modified accordingly. Plus unusually warm, cold or cloudy weather can throw the plants off that schedule, so adjustments still need to be made on a regular basis.
Growers order their bulbs in the summer for fall delivery. Almost all the Easter lily bulbs sold in North America are produced in the open in fields in Oregon and California. Those sold in Europe usually come from the Netherlands, Israel, Japan, Korea or China. They arrive in large crates, free of soil to respect agricultural requirements in many areas.
Exactly when the bulbs are planted is not the most important factor, provided they undergo at least 1,000 hours of cold temperatures. However, the grower needs to pot up the bulbs soon after they arrive, as they quickly dry out if left exposed to the air.
After planting, the bulbs are placed in refrigerators at about 40 to 45°F (4 to 7°C). They can be kept in the dark at this stage. That doesn’t mean the bulbs are dormant as you might think, but are actually growing underground, producing roots at first, later a flower stalk. The soil must at least slightly moist throughout this period.
About 17 to 18 weeks before Easter, the grower will move the potted bulbs to a sunny but cool greenhouse: not much more than 65°F (18°C) during the day. Growers maintain the desired temperature by turning on a heater when it’s cold outside and opening vents to let the cold outside air in when it’s too hot. And a sealed greenhouse can quickly become overheated on a sunny March or April day.
Regular watering is now necessary, as the plants start to grow in earnest. Cloudy and rainy days can delay flowering, so growers increase the temperature accordingly. A stretch of sunny days, though, can cause the bulbs to bloom too early, so vents and fans are opened to allow more cold air in.
Hot temperatures also affect height of the flower stalk: the hotter it is, the taller the stem. Since consumers prefer relatively compact lilies, it may be necessary to treat the plants with a growth retardant. It reduces the space between the leaves and thus the eventual height of the plant. But not too much, as dwarf plants don’t sell either.
Normally, growers start shipping plants to stores a week or so before Easter, when the flowers are still in the bud stage. They should be pale green, but starting to swell. By the time they reach the store, at least the first flowers are open, much to the delight of the buyer.
A Few Tips
To get the most bang for your buck, choose a potted Easter lily pot with a large number of flower buds, but only one or two open flowers. That’s a sign that it’s just beginning its blooming season and therefore that the display will last longer, while a plant in full bloom, although it may initially appear more attractive, might be almost bloomed out.
The huge difference in price seen from one seller to another is mainly based on the number of buds or flowers and how advanced they are. Supermarkets and box stores often pick up inferior plants that just wouldn’t cut the muster in a nursery or florist shop and sell them at bargain basement prices. If you think you’ve found a deal because the price is so low, that may simply be because there are few flowers on the plant or that the flowers are too advanced for the season. Sometimes it’s worth paying more for a better plant that will produce more flowers over a longer period.
Finally, once you get the plant home, to keep it blooming as long as possible, place your lily in bright light, but not in full sunlight, and in a cool place: 68°F (20°C) or less. At night, if you can, move it to a barely heated room. That will lengthen its useful life considerably. Water as necessary: the soil should not be allowed to dry out. There is no need to fertilize.
Don’t let your cats chew on your Easter lily because its leaves, flowers, stems and bulbs are toxic to felines. Place it out of their reach. Curiously, this lily is not toxic to humans (or to dogs) and in fact, in the Ryukyu Islands of Japan where it grows wild, Easter lily bulbs were once used as a vegetable, much in the way we use potatoes.
After It Blooms
If you want to, you can plant your Easter lily outdoors after bloom, once all danger of frost is over. Just don’t expect much.
It’s one of the least hardy of all lilies and though it may survive in zones 7 or 8, it really only thrives under subtropical conditions (zones 9 and 10). It may, however, give one last hurrah, even in colder climates, and bloom again at the end of its summer. If so, the plant you bought will die back after planting out (you can cut off the dead stems) and new stems will appear. It’s these new stems that will, with a little luck, bloom.
If you want to try overwintering it outdoors, when you plant the bulb in the garden, plant it deeper than it was in its pot, covering the top with 3 to 5 inches (8 to 12 cm) of soil. Plant it in rich soil (add a compost or slow-release organic fertilizer) and in full sun. A thick winter mulch of 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm) of chopped leaves or straw may help it survive in colder areas.
Curiously, if your lily ever does bloom again at some point, it probably won’t be at Easter. Indeed, the normal flowering season of the “Easter lily” in zones colder than 9 is actually at the end of summer or even in the fall. It is only when forced in a greenhouse that it manages to bloom for Easter!
Could you possibly force an Easter lily indoors for a second year of bloom? If you live in a cold greenhouse, go right ahead! But very few gardeners can offer the growing conditions that would require.
Learn to Let Go
Any good laidback gardener from a cooler climate won’t bother with any of the above. Instead, learn to see the Easter lily as what it was grown to be—a one-hit wonder — and simply toss it into the compost when it stops blooming. Then just buy a fresh plant at Easter next year! Save your precious garden space for plants that really will give you good results.