University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

We can thank the two world wars for most the world production of the Bermuda lily--better known as the Easter lily--in this country.

Native to the Ryukyu islands of southern Japan, this lily (Lilium longiflorum) was discovered by the famous plant explorer Carl Peter Thunberg in 1777 and sent to England in 1819.  Missionaries and sailors further carried it to Bermuda in 1853.  Much commercial bulb production was in Bermuda during the late 1800’s, hence the other name for this bulbous plant.  When a virus destroyed this crop there in 1898, production moved to Japan where it continued until the outbreak of World War II.

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 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.

This area along the California-Oregon border is often called the “Easter Lily Capital of the World” as it produces about 95 percent of all the bulbs grown in the world for the potted Easter lily market, and virtually all used in this country.  After World War
II there were about 1,200 commercial bulb growers in this area.  Today the 10 growers of the Pacific Bulb Growers Association produce more than 65,000 boxes of bulbs, shipping them to commercial greenhouses in the U.S. and Canada.  Almost 600 acres are planted to produce Easter lily bulbs, worth about $7 million a year for these bulbs alone.  To help solve bulb production problems, these growers even have their own research station.

Most all Easter lilies are the cultivar (cultivated variety) ‘Nellie White’, selected by a grower 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 did Easter lilies, a plant that naturally blooms in summer in most of this country, become such a symbol of Easter?  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 them, forcing them into spring bloom, and selling to other florists.  Many began buying this flower for Easter, as they do today, with it symbolizing the Resurrection.

So how are Easter lilies forced or “tricked” 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 cold.

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 appliances 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. 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 tape.

If you have cats, especially those that like to chew on leaves, keep your lily away from them.  Any part of this lily, as many of its relatives, can cause kidney failure in cats.  Eating even one leaf can be fatal to a cat, starting 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.

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles