Isabel Gomez’ hands dart swiftly from one lily plant to the next, her gloved fingers pinching off buds before they can bloom into flowers in Smith River, Calif. (pop. 866), the Easter Lily Capital of the World.
An experienced farm hand, Gomez lies prone on an airplane-like wing of a motorized contraption called a creeper, which allows her and other workers to move efficiently across the field without stooping all day. If it weren’t for disbudding, the lily bulbs would flower each July, their natural growing season.
“We don’t want the flowers to bloom right now,” explains Matt Westbrook, 32, a third-generation bulb farmer in Smith River. “It’s the bulbs that we’re after. Letting the flowers bloom stunts the bulb growth.”
Hands-on field work each summer by laborers such as Gomez—part of a three-year cycle of harvesting and replanting that produces bulbs large enough for commercial potting—sets the stage for millions of flowering lilies to grace homes, churches and businesses each spring.
About 95 percent of the world’s Easter lily bulbs grow to maturity on the fertile coastal land along the California and Oregon border.
Easter lilies are native to the southern islands of Japan, and their bulbs first were shipped to the United States during the 1880s after being cultivated in Bermuda. In the early 1900s, Japan dominated America’s lily market. Bulb production in the United States began after World War I when American soldier Louie Houghton brought a suitcase full of lily bulbs from Japan and distributed them to friends and neighbors along the southern Oregon coast.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, trade between the two nations ended, opening the door for West Coast bulb growers to expand their cottage industry as the value of lily bulbs rose. By 1945, about 1,200 growers were cultivating the flower bulbs along the coast from Long Beach, Calif., to Vancouver, Canada.
“For awhile there, a shoebox full of bulbs was worth more than its weight in gold,” says Lee Riddle, 60, director of the Easter Lily Research Foundation in Brookings, Ore. (pop. 2,391). “People started calling them white gold.”
About 600 acres in the Smith River area eventually became the center of Easter lily bulb production in America. The perennial plant’s labor-intensive nature weeded out growers elsewhere who couldn’t compete with the quality bulbs produced in the ocean mist, moderate climate and rich soil of Del Norte County.
“That dip in the coastline known as Pelican Bay, from Point St. George, Calif., to Brookings-Harbor, Ore., gives our growers almost perfect climate,” Riddle says. “Our soil drains unlike any I ever studied in school. It’s mostly clay and gravel broken up by eons of organic matter washed off the coastal hills. You won’t find anywhere else in the world better suited for cultivating lily bulbs.”
Growers say it’s fitting that the bulbs that bloom into graceful Easter lilies flourish between two epic landscapes. To the east of the fields are hills forested with giant redwood trees. To the west, growers can see the Pacific Ocean sparkling in the sunlight.
Planting and replanting
Today, only five Easter lily bulb farms owned by four families remain in California’s northwest corner, producing up to 14 million bulbs each year.
“Growing lily bulbs to commercial grade is a demanding, precise and time-consuming process,” Riddle says. “From first planting of a bulb leaf, called a scale, to a mature size over seven inches in circumference, it’ll take usually three years.”
In fact, bulbs remain under-ground for more than 1,000 days to reach maturity. During that time, they are harvested, sorted, cleaned and replanted three times.
“They’re just such a different crop,” says Westbrook who, like his older brother and business partner Will and their father, Richard, earned an agriculture degree from California State University at Chico. “You go to different parts of the globe and tell them you grow Easter lilies, and they don’t know really what you’re talking about. It’s pretty unique.”
After mature bulbs are harvested from mid-August to mid-November, they are packed in boxes between beds of moistened peat moss. The boxes are shipped in refrigerated trucks to nurseries throughout the United States and Canada, where the bulbs are potted, fertilized and timed to bloom for the Easter season.
Representing the second generation of their family in the lily bulb business, Linda Crockett and her brother, Don, are considered relative newcomers to the foundation’s growers association.
“It’s a good life,” muses Linda, 53. “Every year brings a different challenge, but the lily growers help each other a lot.”
Cultivating lily bulbs can be an act of faith for growers such as the Crocketts, who deal with adverse weather, pesky pests and other challenges. But satisfaction comes when their bulbs bloom across America and beyond.
For Linda, the business becomes personal during the Easter season when she delivers homegrown lilies to Foursquare Gospel Church in Crescent City, Calif., where she worships. The pristine white lilies symbolize purity and new life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ—the central belief of the Christian faith.
“Sitting in church on Easter Sunday, many times my thoughts are on those lilies and what they represent,” she says, “and how interesting it is that my family, out of four families in the whole world, is in this business.”