We can thank Louis Houghton, a World War I soldier, for the popularity of the Bermuda lily--better known as the Easter lily--in this country. In 1919 he brought a suitcase full of hybrid lily bulbs to the southern coast of Oregon and gave them to family and friends to plant.
The climate there was ideal for growing this lily, a native of the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, and by 1945, 1,200 west coast growers were producing bulbs for the commercial market. Up until that time, first Bermuda, and then Japan, dominated the U.S. export market.
Today, ten growers, most located along the California-Oregon border, in an area known as the "Easter Lily Capital of the World," produce 95 percent of all bulbs grown in the world for the potted Easter lily market. They produced almost 11.5 million bulbs last year, shipping them to commercial greenhouses in the U.S. and Canada.
Despite a sales window of only two weeks, Easter lilies are the fourth largest crop in wholesale value in the U.S. potted plant market, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Poinsettias, mums, and azaleas, rank first, second, and third. States producing the highest number of potted Easter lilies are Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
So what goes into the production of an Easter lily?
Well, first you need the right climate: year-round mild temperatures; deep, rich alluvial soil; and abundant rainfall. Then you need plenty of patience as bulbs must be cultivated in fields for three to four years before they can be shipped to commercial greenhouse growers who force the plants under controlled conditions to flower in time for Easter.
While the bulbs are growing in the fields, they require constant care and attention to assure superior quality and cleanliness. Each bulb is handled up to 40 times before it is ready to be shipped.
A commercial-sized bulb usually starts as a small, baby bulblet attached to the underground stem of the mother plant. When the mother plant is harvested, the bulblet is removed and planted in another field. A year later it is dug up again, replanted, and nurtured until it reaches maturity.
In late September and early October, growers harvest the bulbs, which are then cleaned, graded, sorted, packed, and cooled before shipping. When they arrive at the greenhouses, growers there must determine when to plant and start forcing in order for the lilies to bloom in time for Easter.
The cultivar most commonly grown for U.S. markets is the "Nellie White." It is named for a lily grower’s wife and has large, white, fragrant trumpet-shaped flowers.
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 insects and 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. But remember, since the Easter lily is a "forced flower," it won’t bloom again after the flowers die.
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