As millions of Americans file into pews to commemorate Easter this weekend, a small piece of the Wild Rivers Coast will almost certainly be providing the flowery white backdrop for the services.
“It’s a very gratifying feeling,” said Harry Harms, a member of one of the four remaining farm families that produce up to 10 million Easter lilies every year in Del Norte and Curry County. “What we do provides deep religious significance to a lot of people in North America. We’re really proud of the job that we do.”
The vast majority of Easter lilies in North America, 95 to 99 percent, start their lives in the narrow 12-mile strip of coast straddling the California-Oregon state line.
“It’s a really unique micro-climate here and that’s why they grow here. It doesn’t freeze. It’s a constant temperature. It’s this little, perfect micro-climate for these lilies,” said Linda Crockett, who grows the bulbs for the symbolic flower in the town of Smith River, self-proclaimed Easter Lily Capital of the World.
The weeks leading up to Easter are a busy time for some of the growers who cultivate the bulbs into potted plants in greenhouses, but the Crockett family farm solely works with bulbs.
It takes three years to propagate a commercial Easter lily bulb, with farmers digging up and replanting the bulb to continue growth. Farmers pinch off the buds that naturally bloom in the early summer to encourage more bulb growth. It takes a lot of work to trick the plant into blooming for Easter. After the three-year-old bulbs are harvested in the fall, they are put into a cooler for six weeks.
“It has to have a fake winter like the process it would experience in the field. It has to lie dormant,” Crockett said. After the “fake winter,” the temperature is slowly increased in greenhouses to simulate spring and encourage the plants to bloom in time for Easter.
“It’s probably one of the most unique crops grown in the United States,” Crockett said.
Out of all of Del Norte’s notable superlatives, the No. 1 Dungeness crab port in California, the largest undammed river in the state, and the tallest trees in the world, the incredible concentration of Easter lilies often inspires the strongest reaction from people.
Christian tradition holds that beautiful white lilies appeared in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus wept in his last hours before Judas betrayed him. The Easter lily has become a symbol of Christ’s resurrection.
“It’s really awesome that I am able to participate in the symbolism of this day, and to think that we grew that is very important to me,” said Crockett, who also tends to the potted Easter lilies at her church in Crescent City that were donated by Matt and Will Westbrook, one of the other farm families in the local bulb business.
As a bulb plant that produces a new flower each year, the lilies symbolize the “eternal cycle of life and death,” Harms said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, potted Easter lilies had a wholesale value of $22.2 million in 2012, but many of the lilies grown on the Wild Rivers Coast leave as bulbs, not in pots.
“All of the money we earn mostly comes from out of the state, and we’re spending it locally,” Harms said. “This brings money into the community and it creates jobs.”
And on Sunday, it also creates the Easter atmosphere in churches across the continent.