When my sister and I were children, we used to tramp across the lawns of our country estate, bellowing the old Sunday School adage about Easter coming on the “first Sunday after the first full moon after the Ides of March.” My grandmother’s Easter lilies, however, bloomed either early or late but always around Easter, never mind the actual calendar date.
She cultivated them under her front window box, along with Ginger lilies just around the northeast corner of her little cottage across the courtyard from the main house. Both cultivars grew taller than I, especially when I was a toddler. I would tip my head under the “trumpets” and look for their faces hidden in the depths, but they had none. Only pansies had faces, and those tilted up to the sun, not bend their necks like a swan. I’d sniff each lily’s pungent perfume, then back away and sneeze as yellow dust ticked the tip of my nose.
Today, it’s the middle of March when Easter lilies grown commercially in pots appear in local garden centers. The stalks are much shorter, only 12 to 18 inches tall, just right for house plants as well as for decorating churches and cathedrals. I love to see them banked in front of the altar at Easter, and a stalk bending with lilies fastened onto processional crosses leading the choir and clergy into the sanctuary. The trumpet blooms seem to shout “Alleluia!” along with peals of organ pipes and hymns of triumph sung by all the people.
Several ancient garden legends arose to explain the lily’s origin as a religious symbol. One is that lilies sprang from the ground where Eve’s tears of remorse fell as she was expelled from the Garden of Eden. The flowers, however, were yellow until Mary, the “New Eve,” picked them for a bouquet. That story is similar to the Snowdrop legend I wrote about previously, where they sprouted from handfuls of snowflakes that the Avenging Angel scattered on the ground.
The Ancients admired the white lily as a flower of purity, as well as virtue and innocence. Venerable Bede (an English monk in Nor’thumbria, c. 670-730) compared the Blessed Virgin Mary to a white lily. White petals symbolized her pure virginal body, he wrote, and the golden anthers extending from the lily’s throat represented the radiance of her soul.
Thus, the Madonna Lily, Lilium candidum, represents the Annunciation, the announcement of Archangel Gabriel to Mary that she would conceive the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 1:26-38). Both Medieval and, especially, Renaissance art depict a flower pot or urn planted with this lily, placed between the two principals, Gabriel standing before Mary kneeling at prayer. In some versions, Gabriel himself holds a lily stalk. Lilium candidum is native to the Balkans and Middle East but naturalized in other parts of Europe, including France, Italy, and Ukraine, and in North Africa, the Canary Islands, and Mexico.
According to another legend, white lilies were discovered in the Garden of Gethsemane after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, having sprouted where drops of His blood dropped onto the ground where He had been praying the night before He died.
Not until the early 1900s, however, was the white lily associated with the Paschal season (fr. Pesach/Passover, the corresponding time of Christ’s passion and resurrection). First churches, then homes, were decorated with pungent Easter lilies and incorporated into religious art. The plant itself is an appropriate symbol of Resurrection:
- The seemingly lifeless bulb buried in cold earth represents the tomb of Jesus’s dead body.
- New life springing from earth is released, representing Christ rising from the dead.
- Glorious trumpet flower with golden throat symbolizes the risen Christ in all His glory.
- White, of course, is purity of Christ conceived without sin, and gold is His kingship.
- And the trumpet shape signifies Gabriel’s trumpet call to rebirth.
No wonder we fill our worship spaces at Easter with this lovely lily. Sometimes, in years that lilies are scarce, they are combined with other early spring florals such as azaleas and perhaps a few branches of dogwood in bloom in the Deep South, or tulips and daffodils and saucer magnolias (Magnolia x soulangeana) farther north, where I live now.
What we Americans know as the Easter lily, Lilium longiflorum, is a plant native to the islands of southern Japan. English traders in the Far East brought back bulbs first to England in 1777, then to Bermuda where a later virus wiped out what had become a large-scale production. Following World War I, an American soldier packed a suitcase full of lily bulbs in Japan and carried it home to Oregon. I rather doubt he could get away with “smuggling” plant material past the scrutiny of today’s border guards!
At any rate, he gave the bulbs to buddies of his who were engaged in horticulture. They developed a thriving commercial bulb industry along the Oregon-California border, earning the area the title of “Easter Capital of the World.” Think about that the next time you purchase a pot or two of Easter lilies from your local Safeway or Publix. Depending upon where you live, those lilies have traveled a long way to get to your house.
When the petals of your lily wither and fall off, don’t toss out the pot! Lilies are bulbs and, therefore, are perennial. Instead, move the pot outside and wait until the stalk turns brown, then replant the bulb and any bulblets into a sunny area of your garden. New stalks will come up sometime in the early fall. Usually, mine will rebloom the following September after a year of dormancy. In the South, of course, they come up faithfully every spring, about the time of Easter, just as my darling grandmother’s did.