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Easter Lilies

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By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

Like the liturgical season it symbolizes, the Easter lily is buried and reborn to live again.

"There are lots of religious connections between lilies and the death of Christ," said Harry Harms of Smith River Bulb Farm, where many of the nation's Easter lilies given at this time of year are grown.

"About 99.9 percent of all Easter lilies are grown here (in Del Norte County)," Hamm said. "It's been a good industry for this area, and very positive – we can even ship them from here."

His Smith River farm is on a strip of property that runs from Dr. Fine Bridge north to Benham Lane in Brookings. Its greenhouses are in Brookings.

"The Hastings family have been involved in this business since 1944," Harms said. "Dick Hastings, Steve Hastings' grandfather, first tried to buy a lumber mill then went into lily growing."

The farm employs 30 full- and 100 part-time people, depending on the season.

During the lily's three-year lifetime, the bulb is cultivated, harvested sorted and replanted three times. The plant spends about 1,000 days in the dark so that it can grow to a size suitable for the Easter season.

And in few places does it grow better than in Del Norte County, in a strip of land about a half-mile wide by about 12 miles long.

For the past several days, Rob Miller of Dahlstrom and Watt, reputedly the biggest greenhouse operator among the lily farmers, is knee deep in shipping 170,000 plants for this Easter season.

The plants' harvesting and replanting have a scant 24 hours between them, but during that day-long period, the lily bulb is trimmed, dug up, cleaned, sorted and replanted.

That's because the bulbs wouldn't fare so well on their own.

Three seasons

A first-year bulb doesn't produce a consistent bloom. In its second year, the bulb would have a good chance of rotting in the field, or without some protection from pests and fungi.

By its third year, the bulb needs more space so that its foliage grows more than its bulb.

To intervene, the bloom is removed before blossoming. Bulb farm managers monitor air and soil temperatures, then remove the blossom just before it blooms and after its period of maximum growth.

By the end of its third season, the bulb is healthy and large enough to be harvested.

Next, the bulb goes to the greenhouse for potting, feeding and preparation for its blooming in time for the Easter season.

When the bulb is deemed large enough to be labeled "commercial "grade, it is trimmed of all its growth, including all of its attached bulblets, called daughters. Twenty-four hours later, the small daughters are sorted, cleaned and replanted.

They're dropped into the dirt, oriented for maximum growth, and the dirt is pulled up over them to create hills and furrows.

The following spring, the small daughter sends up a growth shoot. It's encouraged, but only for awhile, then trimmed in June to force the plant's growth back into the bulb.

By its third fall, the bulb's response to the shortening days and cooler nights switches from growing foliage to swelling its size.

Savvy bulb farmers watch their fields, ready to pounce on the bulbs just as the plants have finished channeling their carbohydrate production from leaves to bulb.

During the seven-day period the switch happens, bulbs can expand as much as an inch in circumference. It's much like young teenagers' growth spurts.

The bulbs that are large enough are upgraded to "commercial," and readied to leave their fields forever.

The size of a softball by this point, they're cleaned, sorted and layered, 125 to a box, between beds of moistened peat moss in specially designed boxes.

The boxes are built with shaped sides and extra spacers on the sides and bottoms that allow the heat to leave. If they weren't, the boxes would heat up from the energy stored in the bulbs.

A lot of research

In mid-fall, they are trucked out to buyers who plan to sell them the following spring. They're kept in cold storage for 40 days, which tricks them into thinking it's winter.

When the bulbs reach their new owners, they're potted and forced to grow in time to bloom at Easter.

"The process is the cumulative work of the United States Dairy Association and various land grant universities across the country to develop programs to improve the plants," Harms said. "Poinsettias are much simpler to force, their process happens naturally (in some climates)."

 
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