The Easter Lily Capital of the World is in an unexpected patch of paradise: The Oregon-California coast, between the Pacific Ocean and great, redwood forests.
Harry Harms has been growing Easter lilies for 37 years, and his is the last farm of its kind in Oregon.
There were once 1,200 Easter lily bulb growers along the Pacific Coast, from as far Vancouver, British Columbia, to southern California. Most were squeezed out by market conditions and the extremely sensitive nature of the business.
“I have never seen anything more beautiful than 15 or 20 acres of Easter lilies in full bloom under a full moon,” he says at his farm near the California border. “Gorgeous, just gorgeous.”
Harms is general manager of Hastings Bulb Growers Inc., which owns lily bulb farms in Oregon and California. The company produces about one-third of all Easter lily bulbs sold in North America. Most of the rest are produced by three California families.
Partner Steve Hastings is a third-generation grower, producing lily bulbs on California fields planted by his grandfather in 1945, and later tended by his dad, a WW II bombardier.
Bulbs are harvested on a slender ribbon of land along Hwy. 101 at the Oregon-California border.
Yet few travelers see the blossoms perfuming Harms’ fields. Petals are stripped from the flowers almost as swiftly as they appear, to “toughen” the bulb for the perennial market. Bulbs are removed from the ground; “bulblets” are separated, as if peeling an onion; and then the bulb is treated and replanted.
It takes three years of this before Easter lily bulbs are ready to be shipped all over North America.
“If they weren’t raised here, they probably wouldn’t be raised at all” on the continent, Harms says. “This little chunk of earth has the ideal climate, ideal soil and ideal conditions that are perfect for Easter lilies.”
The bulbs aren’t native to North America. American soldier Louis Houghton apparently brought a suitcase full of bulbs from Japan after World War I, giving them away to friends in Oregon. The bulbs, which originated in the Ryuku islands, weren’t available from Japan during WW II, so became highly prized as “white gold” on this coast.
But the costs of trying to produce white gold discouraged almost every gardener who tried to grow it commercially.
“It’s not an economic business,” Harms laughs, explaining that he raises beef and grows cranberries on his land too.
It’s most difficult because greenhouse growers must pamper the bulbs to force them to bloom right on time, every Easter, even though the actual date of the Christian celebration varies by five weeks. (For more, check easterlily.com.)
Best time to see lilies in these Oregon-California fields is June-July, depending on weather conditions.
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