Human Flower Project

Easter Lily—Sacred Nouveau

The blossom that, in the U.S., signifies Christianity’s highest Holy Day was introduced by a Philadelphia traveler, in the era of Art Nouveau.


Acolyte with lilies on the cross

Easter, c. 1925, Denver, CO

Photo: Harry Mellon Rhoads

via American Memory/Library of Congress

When—and how—does innovation become a trend and trend, entrenched, morph into “tradition”?

We’re sure 1000 anthropologists are at work on this process. To their efforts, may we add the so-called Easter lily, Lilium longiflorum. This beautiful and fragrant white flower decorated hundreds of thousands of Christian churches today; most altar guilds, we suspect, selected this blossom without thinking. That reflex is what makes the flower traditional.

L. Todd Spencer’s fine story for the Hampton Roads Pilot quotes Rev. Melvin T. Blackwell of Little Zion Baptist Church in Smithfield, Virginia. “The Easter lily allows people to walk by, smell its fragrance and say, ‘‘Hmm - resurrection time….’ Just the thought of not having lilies would cause members to wonder.”

imagePromotion for the New York Times, 1896

Image: American Memory/Library of Congress

The real wonder is that this flower, native to Southern Japan, is now so widely perceived as a Christian symbol. Our present day “Easter lily” was introduced to the U.S. not by the Angel Gabriel (If you can believe Northern Renaissance painters, he came bearing Lilium candidum) but by Mrs. Thomas Sargent (sorry Mrs. S., that we have not yet discovered your own first name!) Traveling to Bermuda in the 1880s, she saw Lilium longiflorum blooming in early spring and brought bulbs back home to Philadelphia.  She turned the lily bulbs over to nurseryman William Harris, who figured out how to force them into bloom on schedule, in time for Easter.

It’s no coincidence, we believe, that Americans of the 1890s fell so hard for Lilium longiflorum. This also was the era of Art Nouveau, with its bold floral silhouettes. “Dynamic, undulating, and flowing (forms), with curved ‘whiplash’ lines of syncopated rhythm, characterized much of Art Nouveau. Another feature is the use of hyperbolas and parabolas. Conventional mouldings seem to spring to life and ‘grow’ into plant-derived forms.” What flower better fits this description than the Easter lily?

Dreaming of this magnificent flower last night, we woke up thinking of another creation of the “gay nineties”—Thomas Edison’s gramophone. Couldn’t Barraud’s pup be listening not to His Master’s Voice but a brass Easter lily blossom?

Around 1900 Japanese growers, seeing U.S. demand, stepped up production of their native lily and dominated the market until World War II.  Since that time, and till today, nearly all the Easter lilies in the U.S. start out in a region near the Oregon/California line. A World War I soldier named Louis Houghton brought “a suitcase full of hybrid lily bulbs to the South coast of Oregon in 1919” and local growers discovered their climate was ideal for growing the bulbs.

imageFrom Easters past, now planted

Smithville, Texas

Photo: Wanda Gamble

“Greenhouse growers receive bulbs in the late fall, the bulbs are potted and placed in non-freezing cool temperatures.  The bulbs must receive about 1000 hours of such moist cold in order to bloom, although additional light after they sprout can substitute for some cold. Once the lily bulbs sprout, they are closely monitored by growers in order to time them for Easter.  This can be difficult, as Easter can vary from March 22 to April 25.” (Easter, by the way, arrives on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.)

“Easter has its share of traditions,” recounts the Texas A&M Extension Service, “egg decorations and hunts; gift baskets and chocolate bunnies, sunrise church services, parades, and, of course, the Easter Lily.  For many, the beautiful trumpet-shaped white flowers symbolize purity, virtue, innocence, hope and life - the spiritual essence of Easter.”

That’s quite a leap, in fact quite a few leaps, from the non-Christian Ryukyu Islands, to Bermuda, to Philly greenhouses, back to Japan, then Southern Oregon —all to “symbolize purity,” the sorts of contortions human culture—in its supreme and profane flexibility—can manage.

Wishing all a Happy Easter, though in much of the U.S.A., an unseasonably cold one.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/08 at 01:32 PM


Julie, One advantage of Lilium longiflorum is that the bulbs can be raised from seed to flowering size very quickly. I believe there was a time when “Easter lilies” were raised in Bermuda, and in fact another common name for the species is Bermuda lily. However virus (and lilies in general are very susceptible to viruses) put paid to production there.

I wonder if there is not some connection to the Madonna lily, Lilium candidum, portrayed in paintings of the annunciation of the Virgin Mary. However this species, also with pristine white flowers, is more difficult to cultivate - it must be planted just below the soil surface and has a basal tuft of winter green leaves.


Posted by Judy on 04/09 at 08:49 AM
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