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History of the Easter Lily

By Sara Henderson
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Spring has officially arrived! It’s been a long, cold winter but the Vernal Equinox – the official start of spring – is March 20. That means Easter, celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox will be here soon. Easter celebrates the Resurrection for Christians and has much related symbolism. The cross is the most obvious and it is found throughout Oakland. Eggs, baby animals and flowers are also seen as symbols of innocence and new life. Bulbs are frequently used as they spring to life from a dry, lifeless looking bulb, often early in the year when they bring hope that spring will soon arrive. The Easter lily is the most popular of these floral images. Its large, pure white trumpets symbolize purity, virtue and innocence and are often associated with the Virgin Mary.
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Another story says that as Christ walked the earth all of the flowers bowed before Him – except the proud lily. After the Crucifixion, the lily bowed its head in sorrow and shame and grows that way still.
The first lily associated with the Virgin Mary was the Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum), a native of Palestine. Records of it go back to Samaria over 5,000 years ago. The Minoans, Greeks and Romans all associated this flower with the queen of their gods. It carried into Christian traditions by the late 15th and early 16th Centuries as a symbol for the Queen of Angels, with artwork depicting an angel carrying a lily flower.
Lilium candidum - Madonna Lily lilum_candidum
Today’s Easter lily is Lilium longiflorum, a native of Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan. It was discovered by the famous plant explorer Carl Peter Thunberg in 1777, sent to England in 1819, and to Bermuda in 1853, where it thrived and bloomed in spring. It is said that a visitor to the island saw them and brought them back to Philadelphia, where a local nurseryman forced them for sale at Easter.
Lilium longiflorum - Easter lily
At that time many commercial lily growers were based in Bermuda. They provided much of our commercial crop until 1898, when a virus destroyed their plants. Production returned to Japan until trade was halted at the outbreak of World War II. The story of our Easter lily might have ended there if it hadn’t been for a World War I soldier, Louis Houghton, who brought a suitcase full of bulbs home to his family and friends in Oregon, where they flourished. When the Japanese supply was halted, these bulbs became the nucleolus of a new industry. Today over 90% of all Easter lily bulbs are grown in this area of Oregon.
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The Historic Oakland Foundation offers large pots of three to four lilies for sale during Easter. We will place them on the grave of your loved one, or they can be picked up to use at home or as gifts. After Easter they are picked up, nursed in the old greenhouse until time to plant them on the grounds, where they will return and bloom each summer for years to come. You can do the same with your own lilies. Just keep them in a bright place and water them regularly (get your Easter lilies here). Your goal is to keep the foliage healthy so that the bulb can store energy for the future. They can go outside as soon as the weather is warm. Plant them in a sunny spot with good drainage and continue watering if needed. It may take a year or two for forced bulbs to regain enough strength to bloom, but it will be worth the wait.
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