Dakota Gardener: Easter lilies

Carrie Knutson
NDSU Extension Agent, Grand Forks County

The Easter lily is a symbol of beauty, hope and life.

For those reasons and many more, Easter lilies are a popular potted flower this time of year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Floriculture Crop Summary, more than 5 million Easter lilies were sold (wholesale and retail) in 2019.

The Easter lily is native to the southern islands of Japan. Western explorers helped spread the bulbs across the globe. Japan was the top exporter of Easter lilies to the U.S. until World War II. Then growing the bulbs in the U.S. became more economical.

Bulbs are grown in the field, harvested and replanted each year for three to four years until they reach the right size and maturity. Then bulbs are shipped off to commercial greenhouse growers.

Easter lilies are forced to bloom out of their normal time for the Easter holiday. The program to force bulbs to flower is a tricky process and starts 23 weeks before Easter.

The cultivar most commonly grown is “Nellie White,” named for a lily grower’s wife. Each flower is 3 to 7 inches long with overlapped petals that create a tube shape. The usual flower color is white, but some cultivars come in shades of pink, yellow or cream.

When selecting your Easter lily, choose plants that have dense foliage along the entire stem. The plant should be about twice as tall as the pot. Look for plants that have a lot of buds in different stages of development with a few flowers opened to extend your enjoyment of the plant.

Easter lilies should be kept away from drafts and excessive heat in your home. They prefer temperatures between 65 and 75 F.

Water when the soil feels dry to the touch. Be careful not to overwater or allow the plant to sit in water. When watering, remove the pot from the foil wrapping or other container to ensure drainage of excess water. Place the pot in the sink or other large container to catch the excess water.

Once the flowers open, remove the yellow anthers in the center with a tweezers to extend the bloom time.

Like other plants in the Lilium genus, the Easter lily is highly toxic to cats. Just a few small bites can have a serious effect, resulting in vomiting, kidney failure and, sadly, death.

In warmer climates, (USDA Hardiness zones 5 to 11, depending on the cultivar) Easter lilies can be transplanted into perennial gardens after they are done blooming. In our area, Easter lilies for the most part are treated as temporary house plants.

I am sure some gardeners out there have tried and succeeded in overwintering Easter lilies in our climate. Let me know if you are one of those gardeners. I would love to hear about it!

As much as I dislike composting plants, this gardener will not try to overwinter or force Easter lilies out of season. It is an even more complicated process than getting my Christmas cactus to bloom. Happy gardening!

For more information about gardening, contact your local NDSU Extension agent. Find the Extension office for your county in North Dakota at https://bit.ly/3tINJCc.

The Easter lily is a symbol of beauty, hope and life.