Easter lilies have special meaning for some

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Though it does not hold the same level of celebrity in its holiday use as, say, the Christmas tree, the Easter lily with its white, trumpet-shaped blooms holds a strong association with Easter.

Easter lilies often appear in shops and churches this time every year.

Today the Easter lily "is one of the most heavily commercially grown flowers," said Kathryn Landewee of Knaup Floral Co. "It's one of our most highly requested plants this time of year."

Garnishing worship areas with Easter lilies is common in churches, though not universal. For instance, St. Mary's Cathedral in Cape Girardeau does not decorate with the flowers, whereas some churches use them as a symbol for the holiday.

"We do use them," said Deacon Walt Biri of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. "They're a symbol of the risen Christ and new beginnings."

Stories from various cultures and traditions follow the flower. According to some Christian traditions, the lilies seemed to sprout from the tears or sweat of figures in significant moments in the Bible. Teardrops from Eve produced lilies as she and Adam were banished from Paradise, showing the beauty in repentance. Lilies were said to be found on the spot where Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane over his coming trial and crucifixion.

In Christian art the lily is often associated with the Virgin Mary, its white blossom a symbol of her purity. In portrayals of The Annunciation, in which Mary is told that she will give birth to Jesus the promised Messiah, the angel Gabriel is sometimes depicted presenting Mary with a branch of lilies.

Easter lilies grow from a bulb and flower multiple times, giving the impression, like similar plants, that they die and return with new life.

"So many flowers are blooming this time of year," Biri said. "But the bulb of the Easter lily buried in the ground is a picture of Christ who was also buried, then rose again. All of our symbols celebrate the newness of the season."

The Easter lily is native to the southern islands of Japan. World War I veteran Louis Houghton brought lily bulbs to the southern coast of Oregon in 1919 and gave them to friends and family to plant. The climate in Oregon matches southern Japan's, and the flowers thrived.

From the 1890s to the 1920s, the Easter lily was cultivated extensively in Bermuda and shipping bulbs to New York was a major portion of Bermudan exports, according to the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service of Texas A&M. However, disease weakened the Bermudan industry, and by the 1940s the Japanese controlled most of the market.

According to Paul Schnare at Sunny Hill Garden Center, the Easter lily typically blooms in June.

"Growers force it to bloom earlier, depending on when Easter falls," he said. "People want it available for the holiday."

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