Easter lilies shout rebirth, purity

Dozens of Easter lilies, symbolizing the purity of Jesus Christ, were placed around the altar at Wyoming United Methodist Church Saturday. (Delaware State News/K.I. Whjte)

Dozens of Easter lilies, symbolizing the purity of Jesus Christ, were placed around the altar at Wyoming United Methodist Church Saturday. (Delaware State News/K.I. Whjte)

DOVER — “Lilies are absolutely to die for.”

Longwood Gardens horticulturist Karl Gercens is not the first person to trumpet the fragrant beauty of Lilium.

Nearly 2,000 years ago Jesus told his disciples to “Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27)

But in the spring, one particular lily reigns supreme: Lilium longiflorum, the Easter lily.

One might say t he marriage of Easter and the white lily with its giant flowers was a match made in heaven.

“It’s the purity of that white flower,” Mr. Gercens said, that has helped build the Easter lily tradition.

The Rev. Patti Collett Ravilious, pastor of Wyoming United Methodist Church, sees the lily as a symbol of resurrection, and specifically the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“The lily bulb is underground,” she said, like in a grave, until it emerges from the darkness of winter to form flowers and bloom at Easter.

While the flowers shout rebirth, the color symbolizes purity.

“In the book of Revelation, white robes are associated with eternal life, the pureness of Jesus, his sinlessness,” Ms. Ravilious said, “his willingness to sacrifice his life for us.”

Today her church, like many others, will be bursting with the white lilies as Christians celebrate Easter. It’s a tradition born in the last century when Americans embraced the Easter lily, native to southern Japan’s Ryukyu Islands.

From East to West

Japan dominated the market until World War II, but today most bulbs are grown on the West Coast and either shipped as bulbs or in pots to greenhouses, nurseries and box stores. More than 7.7 million were sold in the United States in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, putting it fifth on the sales list of potted flowering plants.

CATS AT RISK Lilies are toxic to cats. According to petpoisonhelpline.com, a cat spotted nibbling on any part of the Easter lily should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Even the pollen or water from the vase can result in severe, acute kidney failure. In most situations, symptoms of poisoning will develop within six to 12 hours of exposure. Early signs include vomiting, loss of appetite, lethargy and dehydration. Symptoms worsen as kidney failure develops. Some cats will experience disorientation, staggering and seizures.

CATS AT RISK
Lilies are toxic to cats.
According to petpoisonhelpline.com, a cat spotted nibbling on any part of the Easter lily should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Even the pollen or water from the vase can result in severe, acute kidney failure.
In most situations, symptoms of poisoning will develop within six to 12 hours of exposure. Early signs include vomiting, loss of appetite, lethargy and dehydration. Symptoms worsen as kidney failure develops. Some cats will experience disorientation, staggering and seizures.

While Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, receives its hundreds upon hundreds of bulbs directly from the West Coast, local florists Jen-Mor and Bobola Farm & Florist, buy already potted plants to sell to their customers.

Jen-Mor’s John Zimmerman said his family-owned Dover store will have handled several hundred potted Easter lilies by the time the sun rose today.

“Forty years ago we used to grow our own,” he said last week. “But times have changed.”

The plants arrived from Canada about two weeks ago and took up residence in the greenhouse where they were monitored and given the care necessary to encourage “maximum show on Sunday,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

That’s done through temperature. Cooler temperatures will slow down the unfolding bud, he said, while warmer temperatures will encourage blooming.

“Easter lilies can be temperamental,” said Maria Bobola. She and her husband opened their shop west of Dover 17 years ago. They travel to New Jersey for the some 300 plants they handled this year, the bulk of which go to churches.

“We get a lot of church orders,” she said Wednesday.

Bobola started with budded plants that are placed in the greenhouses and nurtured along.

“Customers want a few blooms,” Ms. Bobola said. “But we don’t want them to bloom too fast.

“Mostly it’s a management thing.”

Karl Gercens, horticulturist at Longwood Gardens, said it takes a bulb three years to mature enough to produce flowers. (Longwood Gardens/Jonathan Traub)

Karl Gercens, horticulturist at Longwood Gardens, said it takes a bulb three years to mature enough to produce flowers. (Longwood Gardens/Jonathan Traub)

The lily may be naturally beautiful, but it takes man’s intervention to force the Nellie White cultivar — the most common Easter lily — to bloom months before its natural inclination.

Left to their own devices, lilies generally bloom in mid- to late summer.

But thanks to greenhouse technology, lilies can be forced to blossom in the spring, with bloom time adjusted to fit the uniquely peripatetic timing of Easter. Most holidays have a set date, but Easter can be anytime between March 22 and April 25. It falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring, the vernal equinox.

“Easter is a moving target,” Mr. Gercens said. “It takes 13 to 14 weeks to get the bulb to the blooming stage.”

That window can be tweaked by either raising or lowering temperatures from the ideal 65 degrees.

The lily in America

The tradition of spring Easter lilies might not have survived World War II’s interruption of the supply of bulbs and plants from Japan if not for a veteran of the First World War.

According to Mr. Gercens and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension website, World War I veteran Louis Houghton returned home to Oregon with a suitcase full of hybrid lily bulbs. Absent from the story is where Mr. Houghton acquired the bulbs, whether in Japan or Bermuda, where the plant was cultivated in the 19th century after being introduced there by sailors and missionaries.

Mr. Houghton shared bulbs with friends and neighbors and enough were propagated that when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the hobbyist growers dug in and went to work to answer the demand for Easter lilies.

Japan never was able to regain control of the market.

At Wyoming United Methodist Church on Wyoming Mill Road in west Dover, the placement of Easter lilies in the sanctuary has a long history, Ms. Ravilious said, so long that she isn’t sure when it began.

Congregants bought the flowers used today and will take them home after the service. While some will grace homes, others will be placed on graves or taken to nursing homes, the pastor said.

“They want to remember families,” Ms. Ravilious said of those donating toward the purchase.

Blooms now, blooms later

The sun setting on Easter doesn’t mean the end of a potted Easter lily.

IF YOU GO • Wyoming United Methodist Church will celebrate Easter morning with a sunrise service at 6:30 at Wyoming Park. The church is at 216 Wyoming Mill Road, between Wyoming and west Dover. Worship services are at 9:45 and 11 a.m. today. For more information about the church and regular services, visit www.wyumc.org/ or call 697-8400. • Longwood Gardens, at 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission is $20, $17 seniors, $10 students 5-18 and free for younger than 5. For more information, visit longwoodgardens.org.

IF YOU GO
• Wyoming United Methodist Church will celebrate Easter morning with a sunrise service at 6:30 at Wyoming Park. The church is at 216 Wyoming Mill Road, between Wyoming and west Dover. Worship services are at 9:45 and 11 a.m. today. For more information about the church and regular services, visit www.wyumc.org/ or call 697-8400.
• Longwood Gardens, at 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission is $20, $17 seniors, $10 students 5-18 and free for younger than 5. For more information, visit longwoodgardens.org.

“People should be able to enjoy it for a couple of weeks,” Ms. Bobola said.

To get the most of the limited blooming time, lilies should be kept in a cool house and away from direct sunlight.

Afterward, if planted properly, it will emerge from the ground next year for another cycle of flowers.

“It’s a hardy plant for this area, like tulips,” said Ms. Bobola.

The plant shouldn’t go dormant, said horticulturist Gercens. When the flowers have faded and the plant is no longer blooming, “put it in the sunniest, brightest window you have,” he said.

He warned of the dangers of overwatering: The soil should be slightly dry to touch and the plant should never sit in water.

Once all danger of frost is gone — generally after May 1 is OK, he said — plant the lily outside in well-drained sandy soil that gets full sun.

“They don’t like clay,” he said.

Jen-Mor Florist employee Aubrey Krabill, of Camden, holds one of many lillies, a symbol of Easter, inside the greenhouse. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Jen-Mor Florist employee Aubrey Krabill, of Camden, holds one of many lillies, a symbol of Easter, inside the greenhouse. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

He also said foliage shouldn’t be cut, but rather should die naturally, usually in the fall. The foliage delivers needed nutrients to the bulb.

If buying bulbs from a mail-order catalog or a local nursery, Mr. Gercens recommended large bulbs.

“A bulb the size of an apricot will have two or three flowers; a bulb the size of a grapefruit will have seven or 10,” he said.

“Buy the largest one you can.”

If the plethora of Easter lilies left you wanting to know more about the Lilium family, Longwood Gardens’ display of lilies in its conservatory continues for two more weeks, Mr. Gercens said.

More than 600 lilies are blooming, with the last group recently put out.

Sweet-smelling hybrids join showy Oriental and other varieties in a splash of colors.

“Lilies are like nothing else,” said Mr. Gercens.

“It blows your socks off.”

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.