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Lily farmers race the clock toward Easter
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
March 26, 2010
5 MIN READ TIME

Lily farmers race the clock toward Easter

Lily farmers race the clock toward Easter
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
March 26, 2010

To the untrained eye, the

graceful lilies that arrive on church altars each year on Easter Sunday are a

familiar symbol of resurrection and renewal. Like poinsettias on Christmas, it

just wouldn’t be Easter without them.

But for the people who get

them there — on a date that shifts from year to year — getting the

trumpet-shaped flowers to bloom on cue takes months of just-right gardening,

mathematical deduction and extreme diligence.

“It is by far the most

complicated, single thing that happens in the floricultural industry,” said

William B. Miller, professor of horticulture at Cornell University.

“Valentine’s Day — same day

every year. Christmas Day — same day every year. No problem. … It’s extremely

complicated and Easter lily growers really do have to keep very close track of

this stuff. They have to very much manage their crop.”

Researchers like Miller have

drawn up schedules for greenhouses with how-to instructions specific to the

date Easter arrives in a given year, chronicling the steps once lily bulbs

arrive in mid-October from bulb growers on the West Coast.

Week by week, the guidelines

suggest the exact period for cooling the bulbs (six weeks), best greenhouse

temperatures (somewhere in the

60s) and how long the buds

should be at various points in the growing process.

Temperature is the secret to

getting an Easter lily to bloom on time, said Norman White, owner of White’s

Nursery and Greenhouses in Chesapeake, Va., who has grown lilies for about 40

years.

“You have to look at the plant, decide where it is in the

stage of its growth and when Easter is and you make the decision,” he said.

“Should you give it more

heat or less heat, depending on the time Easter is?”

Even as the lilies go

through the early cooling stage, known as “vernalization,” conditions have to

be just right, said Ray Greenstreet, co-owner of Greenstreet Growers in

Lothian, Md.

The lily bulb, packed in

peat moss, “has to stay moist,” he said.

“It can’t be too wet or too

dry.”

RNS photo courtesy White’s Nursery and Greenhouses

Easter lily bulbs arrive at White’s Nursery and Greenhouses in Chesapeake, Va., in October and are tended for several months to bloom in time for Easter.

His staff does intricate

leaf counts to determine how many leaves need to unfold each day before the

plant flowers. “You can’t be a couple days late or a couple of days early,” he

said. “You really have to follow the recipe.”

Jeff den Breejen, vice

president of Ednie Flower Bulbs in Fredon, N.J., has spent part of March

traveling up and down the East Coast, visiting greenhouses and inspecting the

still-growing lilies that will soon be shipped to stores.

“If they weren’t up to a certain amount of inches by that

time, we told them to turn the heat up,” he said. “If they don’t make it for

Easter, it’s not worth anything the week after Easter.”

If the flowers arrive late,

he could lose customers who wouldn’t want to order them the next time around.

Growers say Easter’s

rotating spot on the calendar affects what other crops they plant in a

particular year. While this year Easter is early (April 4), some are already

dreading next year when it falls much later, on April 24.

“Everybody is already

thinking about what in the devil are we going to do with Easter so late?” said

Russell Weiss, owner of Kurt Weiss Greenhouses in Center Moriches, N.Y. “A lot

of growers next year will not grow Easter plants because it’ll interfere with

their spring season.”

In fact, growers say sales

of the estimated 9 to 10 million Easter lilies shipped across North America

each year are either static or diminishing, with some churches no longer

decorating with lilies, and younger generations less interested in buying them.

The biggest numerical drop

in the industry is where it all begins — at the bulb stage.

“When I first came in the

business in the mid- to late’70s, there were 26 lily bulbs growers,” said Rob

Miller, owner of Dahlstrom and Watt Bulb Farms of Smith River, Calif., and

brother of the Cornell University researcher.

Now, Miller says, he’s one

of four.

At one time, shortly after

World War II when lilies were no longer imported from Japan, hundreds of bulb

growers tilled the soil from Half Moon Bay, Calif., to Bellingham, Wash., where

conditions are perfect for growing the flowers.

Now, according to

distributors and growers, large retail chains sell lilies at lower prices and

with very strict specifications, which creates greater challenges for those on

the growing end of the industry.

“The consistency of the

product and the profitability of handling and growing has gotten extremely

tight,” Rob Miller said. “And that’s what’s contributed to the continual

decrease to the number of bulb growers.”

When Miller’s brother, the

Cornell horticulturalist, arrives at the First Congregational Church of Ithaca,

he suspects he’s the only person in the pews who appreciates everything that

went into getting the flowers to the church on time.

“They have no idea,” William Miller said of fellow

worshippers. “No clue.”