Sunday, April 8, 2012

It's not Easter without lilies

Species name: Lilium longiflorum

Common name: Easter lily

Location: Dave's Garden -- DaylilySLP

Despite having purchased this plant umpteen times for my grandparents over the years for Easter, I've never actually taken a picture of the plant I purchased. I should fix that sometime soon! Until then, I found this lovely photograph on the website Dave's Garden of Easter lilies growing in a garden outside.

The story of how this plant became associated with Easter is a bit of a muddled tale, but an interesting one. This species of lily is native to Japan and Taiwan. The original flower associated with Easter in the United States (and presumably Canada as well) was a lily native to Bermuda. Since this plant has such an unusual growth cycle, gardeners and horticulturalists exploited this phenomenon to force it to bloom around Easter. Unfortunately, somewhere along the Bermuda-New York trade route a virus was picked up that completely devastated the lily crop in the 1920s, and that source of flowers was eliminated. The Americans had a solution to this problem, however, and started importing the flowers from the Ryukyu Islands in Japan. This practice continued for about 20 years until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which halted all trade between the USA and Japan. This meant that Easter lily became a hot commodity, trading often for more than a new car at the time. Now they're clearly much more common (you don't see anyone going to a grocery store with $50,000 to buy an Easter lily), but still heavily associated with Easter due to their flowering time.

Biologically, the Easter lily is an interesting example of plant manipulation. There is a difference between petals and sepals in nature: the petals of a flower are the bright, showy parts that encourage pollinators to visit them, while the sepals are often green, much smaller, and much more drab and only function in protection for the unopened flower bud. All species of lilies have increased their pollination abilities by turning their sepals into "petals" once the flower has opened. The sepals change from green to the same colour as the petals (in the case of the Easter lily, white), and then the sepals and petals collectively are termed the "tepals". A pretty neat adaptation.

The Easter lily is not of great medicinal importance in Canada, but it traditionally has great importance in Traditional Chinese Medicine due to its high concentration of steroidal glycosides. A word of caution: these same steroidal glycosides will cause death in cats, so if you have a beloved cat pet and enjoy Easter lilies, make sure you keep the cat and the plant separated.