Chances are that, as you read this, you're looking at a beautiful Easter lily, probably in full bloom or close to it, and probably in a pot that's wrapped in pastel-colored foil. Just as Christmas is associated with poinsettias, and Valentine's Day brings roses, Easter is Lilium longiflorum's day in the sun.
We can thank Louis Houghton, a WWI soldier who brought a suitcase full of bulbs back home to Oregon from Ryukyu, Japan, in 1919. He shared them with friends, who shared them with others throughout the state, and eventually they grew their way down the coast. In the 1940s, some of those growers saw a business opportunity and began selling what they called "white gold." The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, nearly 12 million 'Nellie White' and 'Ace' cultivar bulbs are shipped each fall from just 10 bulb farms in California and Oregon to commercial greenhouses all over the country, where they're potted up and forced to bloom in time for your Easter gift-giving pleasure. Left to their own devices, the lilies would bloom during summer, not spring, which is important to know if you decide to plant them outdoors.
Why white and why Easter? The Easter Lily Research Foundation of the Pacific Bulb Growers Association explains it thus: "In Christian tradition, the Easter lily signifies rebirth and a new beginning because they rise from earthy graves as scaly bulbs, and bloom into majestic flowers. It is said that while Jesus wept in the Garden of Gethsemane, wherever his tears fell beautiful white lilies sprang up."
Plants with a future
Although many people enjoy their gift lilies indoors until the blossoms fade and then throw them away like stale Peeps, they certainly can be planted in the garden, where they can be enjoyed for years to come. Because forced plants spend all their energy on a one-time bloom, they won't bloom again the first summer, but will usually come back and perform well in future years with proper care.
The first thing you should do is remove the cellophane wrapping, if any, from the plant and poke holes in the bottom of the foil (if pots are wrapped) to allow excess water to drain. Next, remove the yellow anthers from the center of each flower as it opens. This will prolong bloom time and keep your table clean. Then simply enjoy the plant indoors, providing adequate sunlight and watering as needed until the flowers fade.
As each bloom dries up, clip it away with scissors, leaving the stem and leaves intact. Continue to water the plant lightly until the danger of frost has passed in mid- to late May.
To transplant, remove your lily from its container and plant 12-18 inches apart outdoors in a sunny spot, retaining the soil depth it had in the pot, which is usually 3 to 6 inches. Water well, mulch and apply a slow-release, balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) at planting time and again monthly throughout summer. New shoots may grow, but it's unlikely the plant will bloom again this year.
Warning Lilies are toxic to felines. Ingestion can lead to kidney failure, and eating just one leaf can prove fatal. If you suspect your cat has chewed on a lily, call your veterinarian immediately.
Try these outdoors, too
Many other gift plants will return year after year if planted outdoors and cared for properly. Here are planting and growing tips to ensure your best chances of success.
Hyacinths Snip off spent flowers and stems, but let leaves remain until they yellow. Dig a hole as deep as the container, and add a fistful of bone meal. Sink the roots into the ground and cover with soil. Apply a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) weekly until August, and remove foliage after it has withered.
Tulips You certainly can plant your gift tulips, but know that they are unreliable rebloomers. Still, what have you got to lose? Treat as you would hyacinths and hope for the best.
Hydrangeas When flowers have faded, snip them off and remove plants from their containers. Plant outdoors at least 18 inches apart, depending on variety, and apply a slow-release, balanced fertilizer (10-10-10). Expect blooms the following year.
Daffodils These are the most reliable repeat bloomers and multiply with each passing year. Plant daffodils in a sunny spot after the flowers have faded. Water as needed and fertilize weekly with a 10-10-10 product during summer.