The natural habitat of what has come to be known as the “Easter lily” is along the rocky shorelines of a subtropical chain of islands that forms the eastern boundary of the East China Sea. The Ryukyu Islands arc between Kyushu in Japan and Taiwan with the largest and most well known of the chain being Okinawa. (The Chinese refer to them as the Liu-Chiu archipelago.)
The cult of the Virgin Mary, which took hold in the Byzantine Empire after the 5th century, blossomed in western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, when her more regal attributes were emphasized. In the later Gothic period of the Middle Ages the depictions of Mary shifted to emphasize her role as the mother of God. Coincidently it was during this period on the other side of Asia that China under the Ming Dynasty invaded the Ryukyu Islands and turned them into a vassal state.
Depictions of Mary often feature white lilies. It was written that the tears she shed during the Passion of Christ fell to the ground and sprang up as lilies. The lily in Mary’s arms or at her feet is, of course, not Lilium longiformis, which was still growing unknown a world away in the western Pacific. The white-blossomed wild lily of the Middle East and southeastern Europe is Lilium candidum, also known as “the Madonna’s lily.” The plant explorer Carl Peter Thunberg brought L. longiformis back to England in 1819. By that time the Ryukyus had been paying tribute to the Japanese shogun for nearly 200 years. In 1853 L. longiformis was carried to Bermuda and cultivated extensively. On March 31, 1854 (157 years ago today) Commodore Matthew Perry sailed U.S. naval ships into Tokyo harbor ending 215 years of isolation. Later in the 19th century under the Meiji government Japan would annex the island chain.
In the 1880s Mrs. Thomas Sargent of Philadelphia visited Bermuda and fell in love with L. longiformis. She brought bulbs home with her and gave them to William Harris, a local nurseryman. Harris began forcing the plant – which naturally blooms in mid-summer – to flower in the spring to coincide with Easter. The white lily of medieval portraits of Mary now had a stand-in, the “Bermuda lily,” to symbolize the miracle of the Resurrection in the drawing rooms of the United States.
In 1898 a virus wiped out the commercial growers of L. longiformis in Bermuda and the Japanese, in what would turn out to be the waning days of the Meiji oligarchy, took over commercial production of this plant from their southern annexed territory. The plant is often described as “native to Japan,” the Ryukyu Island tribal people would take umbrage to this remark. This is rather like describing a plant found in Hawaii as “native to the United States.”
In 1919 Louis Houghton, a U.S. soldier stationed in Japan during World War I, returned home to Oregon with a suitcase full of L. longiformis and distributed to growers in the region along the coast on the border with California. The cultivation of what had come to be known as “Easter lilies,” spread in the United States, but sales were still dominated by Japan until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Many American hobbyists became commercial growers and the cultivation spread from Vancouver to San Diego. Since the end of World War II the number of growers dwindled and their extent has focuses to the original area on the California-Oregon border, namely the Harbor-Brookings bench of Southwest Curry County, Oregon and the Smith River area of Northwest Del Norte County, California, where about 10 growers produce about 11.5 million plants per year (1996).
It is an impressive feat to get a summer-blooming lily to flower precisely on a holiday that arrives on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. The process begins with vernalization (exposure to cold, moist conditions) followed by greenhouse forcing. When Easter comes early and six weeks of cooling is difficult to fit into the schedule, after the plant shoots appear they can be exposed to artificially long days to speed their maturation. The next stage brings the plant to “bud initiation,” which should be achieved by late January. The buds should reach about 1 inch in length by the first Sunday in Lent. When the oldest buds on the plant are in the “puffy white” stage, the Easter lilies are brought to market about a week before Easter (Palm Sunday).