The Easter Lily is symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Churches of all denominations, large and small, are filled with floral arrangements of these white flowers with their trumpet-like shape on Easter morning. The flower is frequently represented in stained glass windows either in memory of someone or to signify hope, purity and life everlasting. The importance of the Easter lily is a time-honored tradition that includes both ancient mythological and Biblical history.
White lilies have been associated as much with the Virgin Mary as they have with Christ. Early paintings depicted the Angel Gabriel presenting Mary with white lilies while announcing that she would give birth to Jesus. The most famous Biblical reference comes from the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus was speaking to the crowd and said to “consider the lilies of the field.” Another tradition is that lilies sprang up in the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus prayed there during his final hours. They are referred to as the “White-Robed Apostles of Hope” in commemoration of the resurrection.
Legend also has it that after Mary died, white lilies were found at her empty tomb. The white petals represented her body and the golden anthers represented her soul. The expression “to gild a lily” is an attempt to improve on something that is already perfect.
Lilies in Greek mythology were a symbol for Hera, the Queen of Heaven and great Mother Goddess. She was a chief ruler of her people. The lily was one of the symbols associated with her and a particularly powerful one of the feminine. Priestesses gathered the flowers to adorn her altar at her temple in Argos and to invoke her presence.
Part of the Easter Lily (Lilium longiforum) tradition involves the history of how the flower first came to the United States. Native to the Ryuku Islands of southern Japan, Bermuda began cultivating it during the 1880s. The bulbs were then shipped to the U.S. By the turn of the century, Japan had taken over exporting Easter lilies and continued dominating the market until World War II began.
Louis Houghton, an American World War I soldier, returned home to the southern coast of Oregon in 1919 with a suitcase filled with hybrid lily bulbs. He gave them to friends who started growing them as a hobby. After Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, bulbs were no longer available from Japan. Easter Lily bulbs increased dramatically in value and people who had been growing them as a hobby began growing them as a business. The bulbs were referred to as “White Gold” and growers saw this as a money-making crop. When WWII ended, approximately 1,200 people were growing lily bulbs from Vancouver to Long Beach, California, along the Pacific coast.
To this day, the southern Oregon-northern California coast is considered the “Easter Lily Capital of the World.” Most of the bulbs cultivated for Easter lilies that will be sold as potted plants are produced there. By the flowers blooming at Easter, they are a sign that spring has arrived.
As Christians celebrate Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, people will also celebrate a time of renewal. Easter lilies have been a part of that tradition and a part of Biblical history.
By: Cynthia Collins
Origins of the Easter Lily