PUBLISHED: 2:54 PM on Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Lily traditional part of Easter

Courtesy photo
Like the Christmas poinsettia, the Easter lily, lilium longiflorum, is particularly associated with a Christian holiday.

Though the sales window for the Easter lily is short - most years just two weeks - Americans bought about $38.5 million of them in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

They rank just behind poinsettias, mums and azaleas in annual sales.

Caring for the delicate white blooms will make them last longer.

Mary Ruth Albracht, manager of Scott's Flowers, said Easter lilies need indirect light and should be watered at least three times a week.

"When the blossom opens, the open bloom will last seven days," she said.

If you don't want pollen stain on the petals, wipe away the pollen with a facial tissue and discard it on the first day the blossom opens, Albracht said.

When the plant is finished blooming, cut it off, leaving only about 6 inches of stem and plant it at least 6 inches deep in the ground.

"They are a bulb plant, so they don't do well in the house afterward," she said.

Consumers should look for medium-to-compact plants that are neither too tall nor too short, according to

Another way to get the most for value is to look for blooms in various stages of flowering; for example, choosing a plant with one or two open blooms, plus others that are puffy and others that are tightly closed.

Plant experts also suggest looking for abundant dark green foliage that goes all the way to the soil line and being careful about buying lilies displayed in sleeves.

After shipping, the quality of the plants will deteriorate if they are sleeved too long.

History of Easter lilies

So how did Easter lilies become such an attractive part of the season?

The plants have long been associated with religious beliefs, including several biblical references.

One of the most famous passages from the Bible is from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus reminds his disciples in the book of Matthew, "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow.

They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Tradition has it that white lilies grew where drops of Christ's sweat fell in the Garden of Gethsemane. The plants have long been associated with the Virgin Mary. Christian paintings, such as "Annunciation" by Martin Schongauer, which hangs in the Dominican Church in Colmar, Germany, show lilies at Mary's feet.

In another biblical tradition, after God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Eve's tears of repentance grew into lilies.

Pre-Christian fables have it that lilies grew from the milk of the Greek goddess Hera, called the Queen of Heaven. In Roman mythology, when Juno, the queen of the gods, was nursing her son Hercules, excess milk fell from the sky. Part of it became the Milky Way; the remainder fell to Earth and became the lily plant.

Cats and Easter

At the same time people are beautifying homes with Easter lilies, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Cat Fanciers' Association are reminding people that felines and lilies are a dangerous combo.

"All parts of the lily plant are considered toxic to cats, and the consumption of even small amounts can be life threatening," said Dr. Steve Hansen, a veterinarian and senior vice-president of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.

He said cat owners must be vigilant when selecting houseplants.

If a cat has eaten from a lily, he may vomit, become lethargic or lose his appetite. Signs worsen as kidney failure progresses. Without treatment, the cat may develop kidney failure in 36 to 72 hours.

These seasonal plants are safe around cats: Easter orchids, Easter cactus, Easter daisies and violets.