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History of the Easter Lily: Symbol of Life, Purity and Beauty

Michael Cerkas's picture

The Easter Lily has been a mainstay religious symbol in America since the early 1900’s in connection with its natural beauty, purity of color, fresh fragrance and physical blooming process.

The origin of the White Easter Lily, properly known as the Bermuda Lily or lilium longiflorum, can be traced initially to Bermuda and subsequently to the Ryukyu Islands south of Japan. The flower was discovered in 1777 in Bermuda and then widely produced in England and Bermuda until 1898, after a virus destroyed the crops. According to Leonard Perry, a professor at the University of Vermont, growers then moved the plant to Japan.

Their entrance into the United States began with the action of a World War I soldier, Louis Houghton, who was enamored with the beauty of the snow white, pure lily and subsequently brought a suitcase full of hybrid lily bulbs to the west coast of the United States, in Oregon in 1919.

Houghton had numerous friends and neighbors involved with horticulture and he freely distributed the bulbs to them. Large scale production followed and today, the entire Pacific (west) coast of the United States from California to Oregon is known as the ‘Easter Lily Capitol of the World’.

Examing the religious perspective, the Easter Lily and its inspiring trumpet-shaped blossoms joyfully announce the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Christian world. The pure and white flowers symbolize the hope of eternal life and peace as does the Spring season.

The Easter Lily is commonly referred to as the “White-Robed Apostles of Christ.” Christian lore associates the emergence and growth of lillies where the sweat of Christ met the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Agony.

Additionally, the regal white lily has been associated with womanhood. Early religious paintings depict the Angel Gabriel extending pure white lillies to the Virgin Mary, announcing her to be the mother of the Christ Child. Other paintings show saints offering vases full of white lillies to Mary and the Baby Jesus.

The spiritual quintessence of Easter is beautifully exemplified in the following poem by Louise Lewin Matthews:

Easter morn with lilies fair
Fills the church with perfumes rare,
As their clouds of incense rise,
Sweetest offerings to the skies.
Stately lilies pure and white
Flooding darkness with their light,
Bloom and sorrow drifts away,
On this holy hallow’d day.
Easter Lilies bending low
in the golden afterglow,
Bear a message from the sod
To the heavenly towers of God.

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