The flowers of Easter

“The Annunciation” by Paolo de Matteis, 1712, Saint Louis Art Museum (Photo provided)

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”

–An excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount; Matthew 6:28-29

The Easter season is a time of profound religious significance. It is a time, too, of joy and celebration of the promise of spring and the summer months that lie ahead. In essence, it’s a time of resurrection, both of the Christ Jesus and of the earth itself.

One of the most widely recognized symbols of Easter is the Easter lily, Lilium longiflorum, with its magnificent white flowers and remarkable fragrance. It is said that, in the tormented hours before Jesus’ death, lovely white lilies were found growing in the garden of Gethsemane, wherever his blood, sweat, and tears fell to earth. For Easter Sunday, many churches cover their altars and surround their crosses with lilies to commemorate the Resurrection and to remember and honor loved relatives and friends, who have passed away.

In Paolo de Matteis painting, “The Annunciation” (1712, Saint Louis Art Museum), the Archangel Gabriel is depicted holding a white lily. He appears to be offering it to Mary, some say, as a symbol of her purity, as he explains that she is to become the mother of the Christ child.

Daffodils (Narcissus) too, because they are so widely associated with the coming of spring, are often considered symbols of rebirth and are often found yoked to Easter and to Easter religious services. In fact, in England, wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissu) remain closely associated with Lent. They are somewhat commonly referred to as Lenten lilies (associating them with lilies, as well).

Legend speaks of how the first daffodil appeared during the Last Supper in the Garden of Gethsemane — both to comfort Jesus in his hour of sorrow and as a sign of all that was yet to come.

It is said, too, that, following the resurrection, certain Roman soldiers carried daffodil bulbs into battle believing that, should they be mortally wounded, they would eat the bulb and die forgiven and with mercy.

Perhaps, because it is considered a representation of rebirth and new life, the daffodil was selected by the American Cancer Society as symbol of hope that a cure for cancer might soon be found.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Easter lilies remain the fourth largest crop in wholesale value in the U.S. potted plant market. Their wholesale value in 2015 exceeded $24 million. I find that rather remarkable, especially when you consider that these beautiful snow-white flowers are sold for only two or maybe three weeks each year. Poinsettias, mums, and azaleas rank first, second, and third. Widely grown Easter lily cultivars include Ace, Croft, and the Estate variety, which can grow to be 3 feet tall. Nellie White, a popular cultivar that produces large trumpet-like flowers, was created by lily grower James White, who named the hybrid after his wife.

Easter lilies are native to the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan and, prior to World War II, when commercial production shifted to the United States, the vast majority of potted Easter lily bulbs sold in the United States were imported from Japan. Today, the superior quality of U.S. grown bulbs is recognized around the world.

Easter lilies are not fully hardy in northern New York, but I have heard of them surviving to bloom successfully for many years after being replanted outdoors, in sheltered settings (i.e. near the foundation of a house). If you’d like to try to “resurrect” your Easter lilies outdoors, you must first remember to cut away declining blooms as they wither and fade. Once the last bloom has been removed, place the plants in a sunny window and continue to water whenever the soil becomes slightly dry, being careful not to overwater. The leaves will yellow and slowly die back.

Once the danger of frost has passed, cut the stems back to within a few inches of the soil surface. Choose a protected, comparably sunny location and, making sure that the roots remain spread out and down, transplant your bulbs 3 to 4 inches below ground level, in fairly rich, well-drained soil, leaving at least 12 to 18 inches between bulbs. Mound up an additional inch or two of soil over the bulbs and water the bed thoroughly but carefully, so as not to disturb the soil or leave air pockets. With a little luck, you will soon begin to see new growth.

Occasionally, the plants will produce a few flowers again, in late summer or early fall. It is more likely, however, that you will have to wait until the following summer to see your Easter lilies bloom again.

Lilies like their roots to be shaded and cool. And topping the soil with a thin layer of mulch will help keep the roots cool during a hot summer. You might also consider planting a low ground cover of shallow-rooted, annuals or perennials along with your Easter lilies, for a complimentary touch that may also eliminate the need for summertime mulch.

To overwinter your bulbs, mulch the planting generously with straw, leaves, or pine needles. Remove the mulch carefully, in the spring. You can also dig your Easter lily bulbs in the fall and store them indoors the same way you would other tender bulbs or corms.

Good luck! And Happy Easter!

NOTE: Several types of lilies, including Easter lilies, are known to be poisonous to cats. All parts of the plant are considered toxic and, according to the ASPCA National Poison Control Center, renal failure and death may result when cats ingest the foliage of an Easter lily. Cats are the only species known to be affected.


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