By Larry Hodgson
Easter has a religious significance, of course, but also a secular one, because for many people, the holiday has simply come to symbolize spring. So, whether you’ll be spending Easter in the snow as I will be this year or in bright sunshine under mild temperatures, for many people, Easter is the event that launches the spring gardening season! And if you’re like me, you’ll want to celebrate such an occasion with flowers.
A Wide Range of Gift Plants
The Easter lily is not the only choice of a flowering plant you can use to decorate your home at Easter. Or to offer to a friend for the same purpose. Think of azaleas, hydrangeas, spring bulbs (narcissus, tulips and hyacinths), primroses, etc. You can read Keeping Easter Plants Happy for more suggestions. Every garden center carries those plants and many more. However, no other plant is as closely associated with Easter as is this stunning lily.
The Easter lily is Lilium longiflorum, a trumpet lily with long white flowers that are highly fragant. However, there are dozens of other white lilies that could easily have played this role. That would especially be true of the Madonna lily (L. candida), another white lily. It is, incidentally, the lily we see in medieval paintings and in religious icons, often associated with the Virgin Mary. It has long been used as a symbol of purity.
On the other hand, the so-called Easter lily not a “natural choice” as an Easter plant. In fact, in the wild, that is in Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, it blooms not in the spring, but in the fall. However, through careful forcing, it’s possible to get it to bloom right on time for the holiday.
A Bit of Gentle Forcing
So, about that “forcing” thing. It sounds almost brutal, but in the gardening world, “forcing” simply means getting a plant to bloom before its time.
In this case, by planting an Easter lily bulb in a pot during the fall and putting it through an artificial winter that begins much earlier than usual, it becomes possible to “wake it up” earlier than normal and make it flower in the spring.
In fact, each winter, Easter lily growers must make careful calculations in order to determine when to plant the bulbs. Depending on whether Easter is early (March 22 to April 2), average (April 3 to April 15) or late (April 16 to April 25), growers have to plant their bulbs earlier or later. So, since Easter will be on April 17 this year, quite late, growers probably potted up their Easter lily bulbs late, towards the end of December.
The growers then subject the bulbs to cool temperatures in order to simulate winter conditions. For that reason, they move the pots to a refrigerated storeroom for about a month. After that, they expose them to light and increase the temperature a little. That stimulates the plants to wake up and begin to grow little by little. They have to carefully control watering, temperature and humidity.
If growth accelerates too quickly, growers have to decrease the temperature. If the plants are growing too slowly, they increase the temperature and also day length. It’s a numbers game!
When Do You Want It?
Also, the grower also has to take into consideration consumer habits. In some areas, people traditionally buy their Easter lilies for Palm Sunday; in others, for Easter itself. And nobody wants to buy an Easter lily on Easter Monday! Any bulbs that bloom too late will simply be composted! To the Easter lily grower, the difference between selling all his lilies on time and making a tidy profit or losing their shirt is very fine line indeed. Being an Easter lily grower isn’t easy!
Tips for Plant Lovers
On the other hand, being an Easter lily buyer is a snap! You don’t have to plan your purchase months in advance. Just head off to the store or market on Easter Weekend or in the days or weeks preceding it. You’ll see that there are lilies by the hundreds . . . and at all sorts of prices! How then to choose a good specimen to bring home?
First, know that the number of flower buds and flowers the plant carries is the main factor judging the quality of a potted Easter lily. An inexpensive lily will have fewer flower buds—sometimes far fewer!—than a more expensive lily. Most growers plant 3 lily bulbs per pot, although sometimes even more, as that ensures a nice, full appearance and good flower coverage.
But some do plant a single bulb per pot for sales in supermarkets, hardware stores and other non-specialized retail outlets, where the consumer prefers a good price to bountiful blooms.
Healthy Plants, Healthy Flowers!
Another factor to look at is the overall quality of the plant, in particular the condition of its foliage. On a quality lily, the leaves are a shiny dark green. There are no yellowing leaves and, furthermore, the stem is covered with leaves from top to bottom, with no lengths of bare stem. Also, you should see no signs of insects.
The Buds Are the Key
If you’re buying a lily a week or more before Easter, look for a pot that has lots of lime-green flower buds starting to swell, but no open blooms. If you plan to buy a lily a day at or just before Easter Day, on the other hand, always prefer a pot with lots of buds, but this time with at least a few open flowers. A potted lily that is already in full bloom, with nothing but open flowers, is likely to be too advanced, and its flowers may be nearing the end of their life. That will give you less time to enjoy them.
In general, it’s better to choose a plant with few open flowers, but many buds: that will make the pleasure last as long as possible.
Making Lily Flowers Last
To keep your Easter lily blooming as long as possible, here are some tips:
- Make sure the clerk wraps your plant carefully before you leave the store. If it’s cold, even a few minutes of frost can damage it. But even in balmy weather, a single gust of wind as you walk from the store to your vehicle can do damage!
- At home, unpack the plant without delay. It can’t carry out proper respiration nor receive the sunlight it needs to survive if it’s inside an opaque wrapping.
- Often the plant is sold set in a pot cover of aluminum or plastic that makes it seem more attractive. Even so, you might want to remove the cover once you arrive home. It hides the soil from view and if you can’t see the soil, you can’t tell if it is soaking wet or nearly dead from drought. If you want to keep the wrapping, at least pierce a drainage hole in the bottom and set it in a saucer so any excess moisture can drip out. (Read When Gift Wrap Kills for further information.)
- To keep your lily in bloom for as long as possible, place it in a moderately bright light in a very cool location (between 60 and 65°F/15 and 18°C), as full sun and warm temperatures will cause the flowers to fade before their time. It’s not always possible to keep your home constantly at such temperatures, though. For that reason, at least avoid full sun during the day. Then move the plant to a cooler room in the evening. Above all, avoid locations near heat registers and fireplaces.
☠️ Keep Your Easter Lily Away From Kitty! Yes, the Easter lily is poisonous . . . to cats and some birds. Always keep it out of their reach!
- Be sure to water your lily as soon as its potting mix feels dry to the touch. Even in times of normal growth, the lily hates drought: imagine how much more water it uses when it’s in full bloom! Don’t leave it soaking, though. . . Touch the soil first and water only if it’s dry.
- You can also remove the golden anthers from the flower, because the pollen that falls on tablecloths or clothes can cause stains. Sadly, removing the anthers drastically decreases the beauty of the flower.
- Finally, remove faded flowers as they appear (each will last about one week) to keep the plant looking its best.
Getting Your Easter Lily to Rebloom
Although you may buy a potted Easter lily to decorate the inside of your home for spring, that doesn’t make it a good houseplant! It’s more a temporary indoor visitor. It needs a short but cold winter in order to thrive and rebloom. To keep it happy, you’ll need to plant it outdoors.
After the last flowers fade, plant it in the garden in rich, well-drained soil, burying it about 4 inches (10 cm) more deeply by than it was in its pot, so you’ll be covering up a few leaves in doing so. Give it basic care, like watering in dry weather and fertilizer, during the summer. It will go dormant in fall and die back.
Now, will your Easter lily bloom again?
It can very well do so in the right climate. However, it’s not as hardy as most lilies and needs a fairly mild climate to thrive. USDA hardiness zones 6 to 9 (AgCan zones 7 to 9) are usually acceptable. However, you can always apply a thick winter mulch to try to extend that.
In colder climates, where may sometimes survive the winter, but is unlikely to bloom, you’d do just as well to compost your lily as soon after it finishes blooming.
Forcing a Second Time?
Couldn’t you force your Easter lily a second time?
I quite understand you. I’m so reluctant to give up on any plant. But that is just so difficult to achieve . . . unless you barely heat your home. It’s really not likely to work. Make a laidback gardener of yourself and learn to accept that there are some plants you just can’t grow. Life is so much simpler when you accept your limits!
Where Easter lilies do survive to bloom again, though, you’ll discover they won’t do so at Easter. Late August or early fall are likely to be their blooming period from then on, not Easter.
The Easter lily: a regal plant with a rich perfume and such a strong symbol of spring. Whether you can grow it long-term, though, will depend on largely your climate.