Do a quick google search on traditional flowers for Easter and you’ll find what comes up are lots of florists websites telling you about the “Easter Lily” and while other flowers such as daffodils and tulips are suggested too it’s lilies that seem to predominate. So I thought I’d investigate further and discover the story of the “Easter Lily”, the florist’s name for what botanists call Lilium longiflorum, and the market traders in London’s Columbia Road Flower Market shout out more simply as ” Lonjee lilies”
We are told by one popular website, they are “symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus Christ… Churches of all denominations, large and small, are filled with floral arrangements of these white flowers with their trumpet-like shape on Easter morning. The flower is frequently represented in stained glass windows either in memory of someone or to signify hope, purity and life everlasting. The importance of the Easter lily is a time-honoured tradition that includes both ancient mythological and Biblical history.”
I’m afraid most of that came as something of a surprise [actually a shock!] to me as did the later discovery that the world has an Easter Lily Capital, which used to be in Okinawa, then moved to Bermuda but is now in the northernmost part of California. What on earth is going on?
The biggest surprise or shock was because I knew that Lilium longiflorum come exclusively from the Ryukyu Islands which run in an arc north from Taiwan to the southern tip of Japan, and includes Okinawa. Since they aren’t even recorded outside of Japan until the end of the 18thc L. longiflorum has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, Christianity, or Easter but it does have an awful lot to do with florist’s profits!
Let’s be generous though and call it a case of mistaken identity since most people [apparently including florists and Wikipedia] can’t tell one white lily from another.
All lilies are from the northern hemisphere and overwhelmingly they originate in Eastern Asia and western North America. As far as I’m aware only one species is indigenous to the Bible lands of the eastern Mediterranean and that’s Lilium candidum which has been cultivated since antiquity, and is quite possibly the earliest flower domesticated for its flowers alone.
L. candidum is depicted in Minoan frescoes, Assyrian bas-reliefs and on the walls of Pompeii. It was the flower of the goddess Juno, but then adopted by early Christians as a symbol of chastity and purity, becoming associated with many saints and of course with the Virgin Mary, hence its common name – the Madonna Lily. But I’m going to save discussion about L. candidum for another post and return to L. longiflorum because, despite Wikipedia getting it all wrong and it having nothing at all to do with the Biblical lily, it has an interesting and truly global story in other ways.
Although mention of these lilies occurs in Japanese texts from as early as 1681 the first European to record them was the Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg who at the end of the 18thc was working for the Dutch East India Company at their base at Deshima in Japan. His official description was published in the Transactions of the Linnaean Society in 1794, although apparently live specimens did not reach Europe until 1819 when they reached the Horticultural Society of London via China.
As usual the taxonomy is complicated and potentially confusing, as there is more than one form of L. longiflorum, with several separate populations having developed on different islands. As anyone who grows lilies will know, in more recent times accurate taxonomy has been made even more difficult because lilies have been intensely hybridised so that almost all varieties commercially available are crosses between species, or even crosses between crosses of crosses. L.longiflorum and its hybrids form a whole division of the lily classification system used today.
If you really want to know more about the classification of lilies check out the Lilium Species Foundation website, or this simpler account.
In its native Ryukyu islands L. longiflorum grows at sea level as a stem rooting lily that, in the right conditions can grow up to about a metre, although nowadays I doubt there are many growing wild. However when grown commercially they rarely reach anything like that height because hormones are used to control their growth.
A single sturdy stem grows from the bulb and is covered with narrow lanceolate leaves up to 15cm long, with anything to 15 flowers on a stem, although between 5-9 is more common. These usually appear in the mid-late summer and to produce blooms in time for Easter the bulbs have to be forced.
The globalisation of L. longiflorum didn’t start until after Japan been compelled to open its ports to western trade and influence in 1853. There are at least two versions of what happened. In the first an early Christian missionary to Japan gave some lily bulbs to a friend in Bermuda, who discovering how successfully it grew on the island started to market the flowers. In another story the bulb was introduced to Bermuda via a Philadelphia nurseryman, WK Harris, who had obtained it from a Belgian nursery, but confusingly named it Lilium harrisii. In a way it doesn’t matter since however it happened it was remarkably successful. Although Bermuda is less than 15,000 acres in extent, and only 4,000 acres of those were under cultivation at the time, each acre devoted to lily fields was said to be capable of producing 40,000 marketable bulbs — although they took as long as four years to reach that size. The island soon turned itself into a thriving winter garden for the US East Coast.
Meanwhile, in 1858, another white lily was found on Taiwan growing in mountain grassland on volcanic soil. Specimens were sent to Kew and identified by them as L. longiflorum. This explains why in many gardening books and websites it’s said that the origins of the Easter lily include Taiwan as well as Ryukyu. In fact as Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson the great plantsmen was later to confirm, the Taiwanese discovery was actually a subspecies of another similar looking East Asian lily. This had been discovered in 1871 in the Philippines by Gustave Wallis, a plant collector for Veitch’s Nursery. Named rather unimaginatively as Lilium philippinense attempts were made to establish it as an alternative Easter Lily, in both Bermuda and the Azores but these experiments ended in failure. Wilson wasn’t surprised, reporting it “a delicate and charming Lily with a phenomenally long trumpet but [which] lacks constitution and needs to be continually raised afresh from seeds or scales. It is not a hardy Lily and, though graceful and pleasing, will not compete with L. longiflorum and its forms as a pot plant for general decorative purposes. [see Wilson’s The Lilies of Eastern Asia, 1925]
By the end of the 19th century the lily industry on Bermuda was a runaway success and controlled at least 90 percent of the valuable American market. “How many lilies are grown in the Bermudas is a difficult question to answer,” said a Baltimore paper in 1896. “The figures run way into the tens of millions. They grow like weeds, and if it were merely a question of producing lilies the Bermudas could easily flood the world with them from one year’s end to the other.” Unsurprisingly Bermuda became known “The Easter Lily Island”.
Pride comes before a fall and in 1898 disease, thought initially to be aphid-borne, struck the lily crop and effectively wiped out the industry for a generation. In fact the problem was eventually identified in the 1920s as a virus and by introducing agricultural controls, the industry was gradually re-established. [There is a short video clip of a lily farm on the island in the 1920s on Youtube.]
But Bermudas’ growers had already been facing challenges from Japan. After they were forced to give up their isolation and open up to the west the Japanese began to build a nursery trade and export its indigenous bulbs and plants including many other lilies, almost all of which were new to western garden and nursery trade. [See previous post about the Yokohama Nursery Company who spearheaded this] So when the Bermuda lily industry collapsed the Japanese gained a virtual monopoly over the trade. They also managed to breed a new cultivar which lasted better in refrigerated storage and meant they could take full advantage of the new Panama Canal to reach the east coast of America and Europe much more quickly and securely. Through the 1920s and 1930s they were exporting as many as 26 million bulbs annually, until the attack on Pearl Harbour and the outbreak of war caused the abrupt end of the trade.
The Japanese were not the only ones to take advantage of Bermuda’s decline. In 1903, when it was clear that Bermuda’s trade was not going to resume quickly, the US Department of Agriculture saw an opportunity. Although L. longiflorum had been grown with limited success in places like Texas and California because they were using Bermuda grown bulbs which were infected by the virus.
The Department began experimenting, in particular with growing large numbers of Easter lilies from seed and distributing the resultant disease-free stock to the horticultural trade, as well as starting a a breeding program. Their 1908 report shows how successful they were. By 1929 they were able to release a new dwarf cultivar specifically for use as a potted plant.
By the 1930s the area where their efforts had most impact was a small area on the north west Pacific coast where the climate proved to be ideal with mild temperatures all year, deep, rich, alluvial soils and abundant rainfall. There are “internet stories'” about the introduction of Easter Lilies here supposedly in 1919 by a returning soldier, Louis Houghton, bringing a suitcase full of bulbs and passing them to friends and family and so starting a commercial trade locally, but I can’t find any reliable source or evidence for this. I suspect the Dept of Agriculture’s programme was largely responsible. Initially it must have been small scale but after the attack on Pearl Harbour stopped all Japanese imports the few American lily growers suddenly discovered that they were in a very profitable business and Easter lily bulbs became known as “White Gold”. New growers got in on the act and apparently by 1945, there were over a thousand lily growers based in northern California and Oregon.
By the 1920s thanks to strict agricultural sanitary controls the Bermuda trade showed some further signs of recovery, and by 1945 they managed to export 750,000 bulbs mainly to the US where they were sold to nurserymen for forcing in hothouses.
Additionally as reported in 1946 in the local paper – The Bermudian – air freight now meant that cut lilies could reach New York in less than 3 hours.
New strains of L. longiflorum were introduced, and new flower types selected including one called Curly “instead of having the straight and very symmetrical form of the conventional variety, has a spiral or curly petal making a very curious effect. Although not expected to replace the conventional type, it is expected that there will in time be a demand for this type, as a curious and different type.”
Although the Bermuda trade remained important locally it never properly recovered its global importance and by the 1970s it was all but finished apart from its value for tourism. [For a fuller story of its decline and fall see Hollis Easter Lily Farm]
Instead commercial supremacy passed to Oregon, but things were changing there too. In the decades after the war, as we have seen with other economically important flower crops, there was a rapid massive consolidation of the industry. This was largely to do with economies of scale and the complex logistics of getting the bulbs to flower at the right time – different every year of course because Easter is a movable feast.
Now the Easter Lily Capital of the World is a small coastal region on the Oregon-California border centred on the tiny town of Smith River where 99% of the approx 15 million Easter lily bulbs sold in North America each year are produced by just 4 family farms. There was an interesting article about them in America: The Jesuit Review in 2018 which explains the problems that growers face. The whole process takes three years, beginning with planting millions of lily scales and bulblets out in the fields with the hope that most will survive 13 months of weather and pests to become viable bulbs. They are then lifted, cleaned and graded by size before being replanted for a second year, and the whole process repeated the following year, with the aim of getting two to three million bulbs up to eight or nine inches in circumference. In all that time the bulbs are never dormant and require constant care and attention. Just to prove how labour intensive the growing process is, each bulb is handled up to 40 times before it is ready to be shipped.
It’s also worth noting that for those three years not only do all the flower buds have to be removed by hand but the fields have to be hand weeded too – these days by people lying flat out on mechanical creepers. There are however concerns about pesticides used to control nematodes which are at the lily’s biggest enemy. This is an on-going debate and may well end up killing off the last few farms.
When the bulbs are finally of sufficient size they are graded and packed into moss and put into cold store for about 1,000 hours in the dark, to fool them into thinking they’re underground in winter. After that they are sold on to greenhouse growers who pot them up and then have the challenge of getting them to bloom just in time for Easter!
Since Easter falls on a different Sunday each year (in case you are interested it’s the first Sunday following the first full moon of the vernal equinox, which may be anywhere between March 22 and April 25 to be precise!), smart technology and very careful scheduling is critical to getting them to the perfect stage during the very short – roughly two week – marketing window. But science seems to be taking on the challenge and in 1995 a new technique was patented that significantly shortened Easter lily production. By manipulating temperature and light, flowering plants could be produced from seeds in less than a year, compared with the normal two. More recently genetic engineering is also being used today to create virus-resistant Easter lilies for the marketplace, and even lilies with slightly different colours and markings. That might sound a bit over the top but when you realise that Easter Lilies are a significant and economically important horticultural crop which like poinsettias have a very limited sale period, you can see why there is heavy investment in them.
So Happy Easter, and if someone gives you Easter Lilies, apart from saying thank you aren’t they beautiful, you’ll be able to tell them the true story behind their gift.
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