Extension and Ag Research News


Dakota Gardener: A new appreciation for the Easter lily

After knowing that it takes 3 to 4 years to produce an Easter lily, you will never look at them the same way again.

Esther E. McGinnis, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension

Easter lilies are ubiquitous at this time of year and many people dismiss them without a second thought. However, if you knew the history and the complex production cycle, you might gain a new appreciation for this lovely white lily with trumpet-shaped flowers.

Easter lilies are native to Japan’s southern islands and the bulbs were exported to the U.S. during the early 1900s. In 1919, Louis Houghton, a World War I veteran, fell in love with the beautiful flowers while he was in Japan and stuffed his suitcase full of bulbs. Upon returning to Oregon, he freely distributed the bulbs to friends and neighbors.

When World War II commenced, Japan’s bulb exports ceased. Seeing an opportunity, Easter lily hobbyists tried to commercially produce bulbs in the U.S. By 1945, 1,200 producers were attempting to grow the bulbs along the coast from California to Canada.

Despite the best efforts of many producers, lily bulbs seemed to grow best in a quiet coastal area that straddled the Oregon-California border. Think picturesque redwood forests overlooking the ocean, a wild river and small towns veiled in fog. This area featured everything that lily bulbs needed to flourish including a mild climate, 75 inches of annual rainfall and rich soils. Today, four producers in this area produce 99% of the Easter lily bulbs sold in North America.

On average, three years are required to produce bulbs that are large enough to be sold. The first year, a small portion of the mother bulb called a scale is planted in the soil.  After a year, a small yearling bulb is harvested. The yearling bulb is then replanted for a second year and then a third year. Any flower buds that are formed during this period are painstakingly removed by hand to prevent the flowers from depleting the bulb’s energy. After three years, the full-size bulb is harvested in the fall and then cleaned, sorted and shipped to greenhouse producers around the county. Florists and upscale establishments favor larger bulbs for their more numerous flowers. Big box stores buy smaller, less expensive bulbs that produce fewer flowers.

Both retail and wholesale greenhouses then follow a detailed 23-week schedule to force the bulbs to bloom in time for Easter. A key process is cooling the bulbs in a moist potting mix for six weeks at approximately 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the plant emerges above the soil line, growers carefully adjust greenhouse temperatures to produce compact plants that are just beginning to bloom a week or two before Easter.

When purchasing an Easter lily plant, choose a plant that only has one or two open flowers and no yellow leaves. Remove the decorative foil from the pot and place in a saucer. Do not allow the pot to sit in water which can cause the bulb to rot. To extend flower life, remove the yellow, pollen-producing stamens.

After knowing that it takes 3 to 4 years to produce an Easter lily, you will never look at them the same way again. Happy Easter!

NDSU Agriculture Communication – March 26, 2024

Source: Esther McGinnis, 701-231-7406, esther.mcginnis@ndsu.edu

Editor: Kelli Anderson, 701-231-7006, kelli.c.anderson@ndsu.edu


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