Flowers and Easter. The two just naturally go together.
A legend, dating to at least the Middle Ages, says that St. Thomas — never shaking the title of “Doubter” — would not believe that Mary had been raised to heaven. So he had her tomb opened and, inside, found only roses and lilies.
The white lily — its color symbolizing spotless purity — is the flower most often depicted in artwork of the Annunciation, usually in a trio of blossoms to symbolize the Trinity. However, the orange-hued turban lily has also been called “Our Lady’s tears.” And the traditional hosta’s pale flower is sometimes called the “Assumption lily’ because it blooms around Aug. 15.
Many flowers are directly tied to Easter.
The best known, of course, is the Easter lily. The large, white and fragrant, star-shaped lily we know so well was first a native of Japan, the lilium longiforum. From Japan, it was introduced to Bermuda in the late 19th century and, at the urging of a customer, Philadelphia florist, William Harris, introduced it in the United States. The lily, which normally blooms in fall, was hot-housed by Harris and its bulb forced to bloom in spring. It soon became “the Easter lily.”
However, the Bermuda lily was wiped out by a virus in 1898 and Japan became the source of Easter lilies until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Fortunately, a World War I veteran — Louis Houghton of Oregon, had brought back lily bulbs from Japan in 1919. He and his family and friends had been growing them ever since; they had learned that the climate in Oregon was similar to Japan’s Ryuku Islands, where the lilies originated.
Before long, a narrow strip of the Pacific coastal region along the California-Oregon border became the source of the lily, sometimes even called “white gold.” Today, at least 95 percent of Easter lilies on the market come from bulbs grown by a handful of farms in this area — more than 11 million bulbs are shipped each year to florists.
There are many legends associated with the Easter lily. One is that Eve wept when she left the Garden of Eden and lilies sprang from her tears. (White flowers — besides the turban lily — were also said to have sprung from the ground from Mary’s tears, this time at the cross. However, these “tear flowers” are lilies of the valley — a totally different plant from the Easter lily.)
Legends also say the lily was found by the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane on Easter morning. Still another legend says that all the flowers in that garden had bowed their heads during the Lord’s Agony in the Garden — except the proud lily. However, when Jesus died on the cross the next day, the lily bowed and has not looked up since.
While Jesus spoke of “the lilies of the field” in Matthew’s Gospel (6:28-29), Bible scholars agree that he was not speaking of Easter lilies, but of the wildflowers in the grass. In biblical times, the Hebrew word “shushan” or “shoshan” was used to refer to many flowers that grew from tubers, or bulbs, in the fields: including lilies, crocus and narcissus. The same Hebrew word was also used for the Rose of Sharon.
It is believed that this Hebrew word originally came from an Egyptian word s-sh-n, referring to the fragrant lotus flower.
Other flowers that have ties to Easter include:
- Passion flower: Called espina de Christo in Spanish (“Christ’s thorn”) and Christus-Krone in German (“Christ’s Crown”) for the crown of thorns. This flower, in a multitude of varieties has a structure that reminds people of the crown of thorns, the lance that pierced Christ’s side and the five wounds (red marks at the base of its petals). Its three stamens serve to recall the three nails.
- Crown of Thorns: This succulent plant — think deserts and cacti — produces tough, thorny vines, often ending in flowers that are small and red, like drops of blood.
- Crocus: This early spring flower grows from a seemingly dead bulb — along with daffodils and hyacinth — making it a natural for Easter symbolism. A form of the crocus flower yields the spice saffron. The flower’s Greek name, krokos, means “saffron.” The spice was cultivated for harvest — and also used in types of incense — as far back as the time of Solomon (see Song of Songs 4:14).
- Tulip: In Germany, the red tulip is part of Easter. Not only is it a bulb flower, but its red color symbolizes both love and the blood of Christ. Tulips did not originate in Holland, but are native to the Middle East.
- Pussy willow: This shrub sends out fuzzy catkins before its leaves sprout in spring. In many Eastern European countries, such as Poland, pussy willow branches have been substituted for the harder-to get tropical palms on Palm Sunday.
Sources: “All the Plants of the Bible”; “The Catholic Source Book”; catholiceducation.org; Boston-catholic-journal.com; peopleoffaith.com; bible-history.com; jewishvirtuallibrary.org; Aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu; oaklandcemetery.com; inspirationonline.com; jewishencyclopedia.com; ewtn.com; and web.extension.illinois.edu.