Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum) plants are a sign of spring and of course Easter. They are usually only available during the week or two before Easter and usually put on closeout the week after the holiday is over. This makes growing them and getting them into flower at the right time a challenge, especially since the Easter holiday is usually on a different date each spring, ranging as early as the last Sunday in March to the third Sunday in April. The actual date is determined by a formula involving the spring equinox and the date of a particular full moon. To the casual observer this would not be a problem. However, to a greenhouse grower who might produce several hundred thousand Easter lilies, this can be a challenge. This year greenhouse growers are dealing with Easter lilies and other flowering potted plants for Easter then also having to manage space for plants that they are growing to be ready in time for Mother’s day that is just three weeks later.
Easter lilies are native to Japan who was the primary supplier of lily bulbs to the US until World War II. Then some enterprising farmers, who had started growing their own bulbs took over. Now all of the Easter lily bulbs grown in the US are produced along the coast of California and Oregon. In fact, they are produced in a very narrow stretch of farm land that has just the right growing conditions to produce the highest quality bulbs and only by a few farmers, now less than a dozen. It generally takes three to four years to produce a commercial sized bulb that is large enough to produce a nice sized plant that should have at least five flowers and might have as many as nine or ten. Propagation starts in the fall when the largest bulbs are dug from the field. Lily bulbs are comprised of scales, sort of like a head of garlic. Each scale has the potential to produce several tiny bulbs. Bulbs may also develop along the stem of the plant. These are removed and replanted into the first year production field. The following fall, these are dug up and replanted in another field, then allowed to grow for another two to three years. Once the lily bulbs are large enough to harvest, they dig them up and remove their stems. The bulbs are cleaned, graded for size and quality then stored in moist peat moss in coolers until they are shipped out to growers around the country.
The challenge of growing Easter lilies is that it takes time for the bulbs to be chilled or vernalized in order to initiate the production of flower buds at the tip of the very short stem that is found inside the
bulb. Typically, bulbs are vernalized for six weeks then it takes another 110 to 115 days to get them to come into bloom. Early Easter dates means that a grower needs to have room in the greenhouse or a large cooler to provide the proper temperature and moisture conditions that lilies need in order to be properly vernalized. Often the last of the poinsettia crop is still in the greenhouse, taking up the space where the Easter lily crop needs to go. Shorter vernalization treatment times can be used but they will increase the time it takes to flower, but they increase the number of flowers that are produced.
Weather conditions, particularly the amount of sunlight and even more importantly temperature speeds up or slows down how quickly lily plants grow and eventually flower. Light and temperature affect how tall a lily plant will grow and how many flowers the plant will produce. Plants will grow taller if the weather is particularly cloudy or if the greenhouse grower spaced the plants too closely together. Warm day temperatures, compared to the night temperature will also cause plants to stretch. Researchers discovered that if the difference between the day temperature or even just the first two hours after sunrise are lower than the night temperature, plants will not grow as tall. Growers often use this “DIF” treatment in place of or along with plant growth regulator treatments to help keep lilies from growing too tall. So, the most important aspects of growing a successful Easter lily crop is getting the timing right along with having plants that are the right height with at least a particular number of buds per plant.
Historically Easter lilies were an essential flower seen in Christian churches celebrating Easter Sunday. Often dozens of plants would be on display. However, in recent years some churches have moved away from using lilies due to concerns over allergies. Typically, the pollen producing structures in a flower, the five anthers, are removed from the flowers to help extend the life of the flowers and reduce the chance of staining the pure white flower petals with the golden-brown pollen. If the anthers are removed, any allergic reaction to the pollen should be greatly reduced. However, some people react to the intense fragrance of the flowers. Certainly, a grouping of several dozen lily plants in full bloom can perfume an entire church sanctuary. If you happen to be one of those people that do not like the fragrance or just find it too intense, that can be a problem. Now some churches are utilizing other white flowers, such as cyclamen, instead of Easter lily. The flowers have a very different appearance than the much taller lilies but they have a much lighter fragrance and generally many more flowers than an Easter lily. Some churches have even gone to using artificial lilies so that the symbolism can still be seen without some of the side effects.
There are several things to keep in mind when selecting an Easter lily plant to take home. First of all, look for good bud count. A nice sized plant should have five to seven buds or flowers. You can probably find lilies with even more flowers, but you will likely pay more for those. Ideally only one or perhaps two of those buds should be open. The rest should look healthy, light green in color and at various stages of puffiness. Buds will puff up more and turn lighter green just before they are going to open. If you are going to have to transport the plant some distance or hold on to it for a few days before Easter, get one that has tighter flower buds and perhaps no flowers open. Each flower will last for a few days, depending on the temperature. Flowers will last longer in cool locations but tend to mature and wither more quickly in a warmer location. Keep the plant in a bright location to help prolong the life of the plant and flowers too.
Take a look at the height of the plant. Lilies can vary quite a bit in height. Look for one that seems to have the right proportion of height for the size of the pot. Easter lilies are usually grown in 6” pots and most people like the appearance of a plant that is 18” to 24” tall, including the pot. Also examine the leaves, especially down near the base of the stem, where it comes out of the potting soil. If there are no leaves for the first few inches of the stem, that means that the plant suffered some root loss during production from poor watering practices or from root rot. Don’t be afraid to pull back the foil or pot cover to check the leaves to see if you are getting a healthy plant.
So, what do you do with the plants after the flowers have faded? You should know that generally Easter lily plants can survive our winters here, so you can plant them out in your garden when it warms up in the spring. If you plan to do that, move the plant into a sunny window and cut off the old flowers so that you just have the leaves left. Fertilize it every couple weeks with a water soluble houseplant fertilizer. After danger of frost is past, dig a hole an inch or two deeper than the original pot and plant it into the ground. Water well after planting. Next year you should see your Easter lily come up out of the ground in the spring and flower in late summer. No, it won’t come into bloom for Easter, but you can still enjoy the lovely white flowers, their golden stamens and sweet fragrance. If you do not want to try to grow your lily outside, it makes a good addition to the compost pile or better yet, give it to a friend that likes to garden and would like to try growing it in their garden.
Q I have several bushes of cotoneaster. They need pruning (too tall). Can I still prune them now? They appear to be putting on buds. Also, should I cut all of the fire blight branches out of the plant, or just prune them?
A Now is a great time to prune summer-flowering shrubs like cotoneaster. There are basically two methods of pruning them. The first is called renewal pruning. Here you cut out about 1/4 of the tallest and largest branches (canes), removing them 2 to 4” above the ground. Each year you would repeat this process so that after about 4 years, the oldest branches will be 4 years old. Keep on pruning like this, “renewing” the shrub each year. This will help to maintain smaller plants and therefore a shorter shrub.
The other method is called rejuvenation pruning. This is a good method to clean up a really overgrown bunch of shrubs or hedge. Once again, cut the branches down to 2 to 4” above the soil line. But in this case, you would do it to all of the branches. This does sound drastic, but people are amazed that by the end of the first summer, the plants have grown back up to 2 to 3 feet in height. Once the shrubs get to the height you want, you can then start the renewal pruning process described above.
You can also begin to sheer the shrubs if you have them planted as a continuous hedge. Remember that a properly sheered hedge is widest at the bottom and tapers toward the top. This way the plant’s twigs will have maximal sun exposure from top to bottom. But, if fire blight is a concern, then see the information below.
If fire blight is a problem in your plants, and it too often is in cotoneaster, then you need to modify your pruning process to get rid of as many of the infected branches as you can. This bacterial disease can destroy a cotoneaster shrub in just a few years. It can be spread by splashing rain or sprinkler irrigation and by pruning a diseased stem, then pruning a healthy stem. It causes a darkened, reddish-black almost burnt appearance to the stems often causing the tips of the stems to curl over like a Shepard’s crook with the dried up, brown leaves still attached. Any stems that show this kind of damage should be removed, cutting the stems at least 6” below any sign of the sunken, discolored lesions. If possible, prune healthy branches first, then go after the branches that have the fire blight, to avoid spreading the disease to the healthy branches. Consider repeatedly dipping the pruning tools in Lysol, rubbing alcohol or a 10% bleach solution between branches to disinfect the tool and reduce the chance of spreading.
Q Is there anything I can do to neutralize the road salt that has accumulated on my boulevard so that it doesn’t kill my grass?
A Hopefully there has been enough snow and melt to wash it off. The best way to get rid of salts is by heavily watering as soon as the ground thaws and perhaps it will mitigate the problem by dissolving the excess salts and leaching them down deeper into the soil profile. Plants or grasses that have higher salt tolerance might be good to plant if bare spots appear. This link may be helpful. https://extension.colostate.edu/docs/pubs/garden/07227.pdf