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History of the Easter Lily

No matter where you bought it, the Easter lily you purchased this year almost certainly came from an area only a few miles long on the Pacific coast.

The Harbor-Brookings bench of Oregon and the Smith River region of California comprise the Easter Lily Capital of the World, according to the Horticulture section of the Texas A&M; University web site. This strip offers a climate featuring mild temperatures all year long plus a protective bay, rich alluvial soil, and plenty of rain. Some 95 percent of the world’s potted Easter lilies originate from this narrow strip along the coast.

The Easter lily, lilium longiflorum, is native to the southern islands of Japan. In the 1800s, the plants were typically cultivated in Bermuda, after which growers shipped the bulbs to the United States, according to Texas A&M.; With the turn of the century, the Japanese assumed control of growing and exporting the lilies to this country and dominated the market until World War II.

A U.S. soldier named Louis Houghton carried a suitcase of hybrid lily bulbs to Oregon in 1919 and distributed them to his friends and neighbors. The local market exploded when the Japanese supply of bulbs was cut off following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Like many items in short supply during World War II, Easter lilies skyrocketed in value as hobbyists went into business raising them. There were around 1,200 growers producing bulbs along the Pacific coast from Canada to California.

However, over time, producing consistently high-quality bulbs proved difficult. Eventually, 10 farms along the coast strip came to produce most of the bulbs sold for the blooming potted Easter lilies we see on the market.

Texas A&M; states that it takes three or even four years to cultivate the bulb of an Easter lily in the field. Because the bulbs are never dormant, growers must provide constant attention to maintain qualify and cleanliness.

The Bible mentions the lily many times. Consider the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus told his listeners, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow . . .”. They also grew in the Garden of Gethsemane after Christ’s agony. Tradition holds that beautiful white lilies popped up in the spots where drops of His sweat hit the ground during His final hours. Today, churches use the flowers to remember Christ’s resurrection and the promise of everlasting life.

Lilies were prevalent in allegories pertaining to motherhood. Fables of the ancient world suggest the lily was born of the milk of Hera, who was the Queen of Heaven in mythology.

Over time, pure white lilies have been linked to the Virgin Mary. In some pieces of artwork, saints are depicted bearing white lilies to her to the baby Jesus.

The Texas A&M; site also points out that a legend states visitors to Mary’s tomb three days after her burial found it empty except for bunches of beautiful white lilies. The flower became the emblem of the Annunciation as well. It was also notably present in the Garden of Eden. Tradition suggests Eve shed tears of repentance as she left the Garden, and from these tears arose lilies.