FARGO -- Are you up for an adventure?
No, it’s not running with the bulls at Pamplona, nor zip lining at dizzying heights off the Matterhorn. Remember, this is gardening, and I get an adrenaline rush just from growing a jumbo watermelon.
To join the challenge, instead of discarding your Easter lily when the flowers fade, turn it into an outdoor perennial lily. It’s risky business, like any good adventure, but there’s little to lose. Gardeners don’t brag, but if they did, you’d earn some bragging rights upon successful completion.
Before we describe the how-tos of the venture, let’s discuss the fascinating story of the beautiful bulb that became known as the Easter lily.
The lily species, Lilium longiflorum, is an outdoor perennial flower native to Japan’s Ryukyu Islands. Seafaring traders took the bulbs to other points worldwide, and by the 1800s, the flower became a popular symbol of Easter in Christian churches.
Easter lily bulbs were first brought to the United States by a World War I soldier returning from Bermuda, who smuggled a suitcase filled with bulbs home to Oregon in 1919. The bulbs he gave to family and friends were so well-adapted to the region that commercial production soon followed.
Japan led the world in Easter lily bulb production until their supply was interrupted by World War II, which gave Oregon growers a chance to compete. Today, 95 percent of the world’s Easter lily bulbs are grown on farms along the Washington-Oregon border, and they’re shipped worldwide to greenhouses for potting and “forcing” into bloom in time for Easter.
Because the date of Easter varies each year, greenhouse growers must carefully schedule their crop of potted lilies to bloom at just the right time. Temperature, light and moisture are carefully controlled to keep plants developing on schedule. An entire crop can be worthless if the lilies aren’t blooming in time for Easter, or if they blossom ahead of schedule and the flowers are withered before Easter arrives.
After purchase, flowers will last longer if plants are kept cool, around 68 degrees and cooler at night. To further prolong bloom, remove the yellow anthers immediately as each flower opens so the yellow pollen doesn’t transfer to the central green-white stalk, called the stigma.
Cut holes in decorative foil to prevent plants from sitting in excess drainage water. Place pots in saucers, and discard excess immediately after watering. Keep soil moist when in full bloom.The challenge
Easter lilies can be grown as an outdoor perennial flower, rather than discarding the potted lily after flowers fade. Lilium longiflorum is considered hardy only to hardiness zone 5, so it will require some adjustment for our zones 3 and 4.
After Easter, place the plant in a sunny window and add water soluble fertilizer, such as Miracle-Gro, with each watering. The longer the foliage remains healthy, the stronger the bulb becomes.
Gradually decrease watering frequency as foliage naturally turns from green to yellow to brown. By mid- to late May, cut stalks to several inches above soil, remove the bulb from the pot and replant in a perennial flowerbed. Location is vital. Choose a sunny, but well-protected, sheltered microclimate where deep snow accumulates, rather than a windswept, exposed spot. Amend the soil with peat moss or compost and plant the bulb about 4 inches deep. Water well.
New shoots will emerge shortly after, and the plant will grow throughout the summer and bloom in late September in its first outdoor growing season. In following years, they’ll emerge in spring and bloom in July - similar times as our more winter-hardy perennial lily types. Because
Easter lilies are definitely borderline in hardiness, maximize protection by planting in a sheltered location, and mulch with 12 to 24 inches of leaves, straw or similar material in early November.
I’ve enjoyed this challenge in the past, and plan to do so again this year with our lily. If you join the adventure, please send me photos this autumn.
Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.