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Easter Lilies for the Garden

Easter Lilies give me such a lift: fragrant, noble reminder sof hope and rebirth.... Never mind that I know they don't naturally bloom in the spring; these associations I learned growing up will always move me. So year after year I've brought them home from church after the holiday, to plant in my garden.

However, L. longiflorum is not quite hardy here. Originally from southern Japan and Taiwan (about the same latitude as New Orleans), this relative of onions and garlic was first grown commercially in Bermuda in l853 (and called "Bermuda lily"). In l898, virus and nematode problems wiped out the industry; it then revived in Japan.

When World War II closed that supply, luckily a few U.S. hobbyist gardeners were growing them along the Pacific coast — from bulbs brought home by a World War I vet. Today, 95 percent of the world's Easter lilies come from one small area straddling the California/Oregon border.

Around here, some years they make it through the winter, some not. Still, with good care, they may also bloom again the first year — at their natural time: in July.

After Easter, keep the plant indoors, in bright light but no direct sun. Commercial growing medium is so light, it dries out fast and you'll have to water frequently — but don't let that tempt you to let the pot sit in water: the bulb will rot. If there's foil over the pot, remove it or make holes in its bottom.

Cool temperatures prolong the flowers. Remove them when they fade; when they're gone give the plant a sunny window. Keep watering until all the leaves turn brown.

After Memorial Day (last frost in this area), dig a hole four inches deeper than the pot — in a very well-drained location, in part sun. The bulb normally grows eight inches deep, but greenhouse-forced plants are potted shallow. Getting it back to the correct depth gives it better winter protection. Remove dead leaves and cut the stem off two inches above the new soil level. Additional roots may grow from the buried part of the stem, helping to nourish the plant. Fertilize it at least twice during the summer.

Watch vigilantly for the red Asian lily-leaf beetle: like a ladybug, but oval, not round — and with no spots. Hand-pick the adults. Larvae — much worse eaters — can be killed, when they are very young, by the organic pesticide neem: apply it every 5-7 days.

If you're buying the lilies, pass up getting more plants with fewer blooms each, and go for husky ones with more flowers. These are the most vigorous plants — the ones more likely to come back in your garden.

© Copyright 2003 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 11 April 2003

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For more information

Easter Lily Research Foundation — much detail about how the bulbs are grown, and other information.

Lilies at Michigan State University Extension — extensive horticultural info.

Lilies can be Deadly to your Cat — "Easter lily, tiger lily, rubrum, Japanese show lily, some species of day lily, and certain other members of the Liliaceae family can cause kidney failure in cats."