‘And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’ (Matthew 6:28) Easter Lily, 2011

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by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

It is today Easter Sunday. Easter came late this year, April 24. And it came into a world that was dismayed by our elusive springtime; temperatures low, hints of snow and even some late flakes, and the bone chilling winds that convince you January has never left, though in fact it is 55 degrees in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

My house is awash with flowers, many more than usual. I saw some lovely orchids at Shaw’s market in Porter Square; they were reasonably priced, too. And so then having nothing blooming inside, I brought them home. It is now two weeks and a couple days since I acquired them; they are faded now, of course. But  they still have traces, and proudly too, of the tasteful colors that made me snatch them up.

Doyle Taylor, a perceptive friend, saw that I was preoccupied one recent day and tended to be more caustic than usual. Doyle is a man who not merely believes in saying it with flowers but doing so promptly with a most thoughtful card signed by him and his new wife Casey. They were high school sweethearts who lost touch, married others… then after fate had dealt with them, rediscovered and married each other. They are charming, intelligent, delightful. One can never know too many such but life delivers them sparingly.

Then there is  my most recent floral acquisition, the mandatory (for some) Easter Lily. I got it only yesterday (when I inquired a week ago I was told they came in only a few days before the holiday. It has one  flower open and many buds promising  good value and good looks, too. It is of this plant and its Easter Lily — Lilium longiflorum — that I wish to speak for it is, verily, the  symbol  of the day and its world-changing events.

Description: Cambridge, England: Botanic Garden: Easter Lily (Lilium longiflorum var. eximium)
Description: Cambridge, England: Botanic Garden: Easter Lily (Lilium longiflorum var. eximium) - Copyright cambridge2000.com

Many Easter lilies, not just one.

We speak in common parlance, as people do, of an “Easter lily,” but in fact there are several such. First, of course, lilium longiflorum, the clear winner of the name by its indisputable commercial prowess.

Following far behind in popularity, use, and commercial value is  Zantedeschia aethoipca, not a true lily at all, commonly called Lily of the Nile, Calla lily or Arum lily, native to southern Africa. Then Lilium candidum, commonly called the Madonna Lily, native to the Balkans and West Asia. Zephyranthes atamasco, commonly called Atamasco Lily or Rain Lily, native to the southwestern United States… then (you never guessed) daffodils, the daffs we love being lilies after all.

Where did Easter lilies come from?

Ever hear of the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan? That’s where today’s Easter lilies originate. And therein lies an important fact about why this industry was once dominated by Japan… and why today it is almost completely American. World War II was the transforming event.

Prior to 1941, the majority of Easter lily bulbs were exported to the United States from Japan. World War II changed everything. Today 95% of all bulbs grown for the potted Easter lily market are not only produced in the United States, but more surprisingly within a narrow coastal region straddling the California-Oregon border, from Smith River, California up to Brookings, Oregon. It gets even more interesting; just 10 farms in this area produce almost all Easter lily bulbs in the US of A. Unsurprisingly these farms have dubbed themselves collectively the “Easter Lily Capital of the World.”

An industry completely changed by one man and one bulb.

One man made a huge difference to this US dominance of the Easter Lily and how it looks today. That man was Louis Houghton who brought a suitcase full of hybrid lily bulbs to the south coast of Oregon in 1919. These he freely distributed certain that the weather and environment were perfect for the cultivation of a superior bulb to that grown by the Japanese. When WW II cut off Americans from the Easter lilies which were an integral part of religious services, Houghton was given his big chance on a silver platter.

He was successful beyond his wildest imaginings. By 1945 there were about 1,200 growers producing bulbs up and down the Pacific Coast, from Vancouver, Canada to Long Beach, California. The early comers profited for a time as the price of lily bulbs skyrocketed. It reminded some of the Dutch “tulip mania” of the 17th century, where a single tulip bulb cost the annual wages of 10 skilled crafts people. Were Easter lily bulbs next? A small army of lily farmers bet the ranch on it… and failed. The number of Easter lily producing farms steadily dropped; today there are just 10… comfortably dividing up the proceeds.

The Nellie White.

James White was one of the successful Easter lily producers. However, he thought the elimination of Japan (and its too small lilies) opened the door for other improvements, too. He wanted to end the dominance of the “White Gold” bulb… and significantly improve the look of Easter lilies with an entirely new bulb… in due course named after White’s wife, Nellie. Today the “Nellie White” dominates the U.S. market and thus the entire Easter lily business. One crucial thing in season can completely change any industry, and no one in business should ever forget that.

More about the Easter lily business.

One major reason why so many Easter lily producers closed was the considerable difficulty in growing and managing the plants themselves. First, Easter lily bulbs must be cultivated in the fields for three, sometimes four, years, before they are ready to be shipped to commercial greenhouse growers. During these years the bulbs are never dormant and 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. And remember the commercial selling season is just two weeks annually at the time of Easter (the date for which changes annually)… and all Easter lilies must be ready and should ideally have at least one flower open, the better to showcase the thing that matters most of all to everyone who sees this stately, evocative plant: the Easter lily itself. It is astonishingly elegant, dramatic, the very essence of purity. As such Jesus saw fit to use this favored plant as a means of quieting nervous Christians.

The Sermon on the Mount.

Of the many seminal moments in the brief ministry of Jesus Christ on earth, the Sermon on the Mount needs special attention. It was given in about AD 30 and contains one essential element of the Christian religion after another, including this reassuring sentiment to believers:

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

And so Jesus turned a glorious flower into a symbol of God’s love for and protection of even erring people. Thus, when you attend Easter services today or any day and see the unforgettable white trumpet-like flowers of the Easter lily, you are seeing an apt symbol and manifestation of a love that can be ours and eternal.

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About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc. , providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses.

Dr. Lant is also the author of 18 best-selling business books.

Republished with author’s permission by Graham Lee – The Income Zone

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