"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Easter, Madonna, and Regal Lilies (1 of 3)

Easter, Madonna, and Regal Lilies (1 of 3)

From “Easter Lilies” in Lilies: Beautiful Varieties for Home and Garden by Naomi Slade:

“When Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg discovered Lilium longiflorum in 1777 in southern Japan, he could never have known that it was destined for glory. Biding its time, the flower headed west to Europe before hitching a ride to Bermuda, where it changed its name, winning hearts and minds and being grown in huge numbers as the Bermuda Lily, until the crop was struck with a virus and production reverted to Japan….

“The bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 put an abrupt end to trade between Japan and America, and the price of Easter lilies rocketed. But, serendipitously, a new supply of the nation’s favourite flower presented itself.

“When soldier Louis Houghton returned from the First World War he had brought with him a suitcase of
L. longiflorum bulbs for his gardening friends in Oregon. These amateur lily growers suddenly found themselves with a profitable enterprise: lilies were dubbed ‘White Gold’, and business boomed. By 1945 there were an estimated 1,200 lily growers in the region and it remains a centre of large-scale production.”

From “Lilium” in Flowers and Their Histories by Alice M. Coats:

“The Madonna lily has a strong claim to be considered both the oldest domesticated flower, and the loveliest. It was in existence 3000 years B.C., and is represented on Cretan vases and other objects of the middle Minoan period, between 1750 and 1600 B.C.; it was known to the Assyrians and to other eastern Mediterranean civilizations, and was probably carried westward by the Phoenicians….

“Its native country is not certainly known, but is thought to be in the Balkans; a theory which is supported by the discovery near Salonika of a hardier, disease-resisting variety, which unlike most Madonna lilies produces abundance of fertile seed. If this theory is correct, it is possible that this flower is a survivor from before the Quaternary Ice Age, which destroyed the plant life of most of the rest of Europe.”

From “Lilium Regale” in Some Flowers by Vita Sackville-West:

“The debt that we stay-at-home gardeners in comfortable England owe to brave botanists who risk their lives in dangerous territories can scarcely be over-estimated…. We forget the adventures, the dangers, the hardships, which men have willingly experienced in order to enrich us casual purchasers of their spoils. We forget the preparations for expeditions, the struggle to engage native porters, mules, packs, and what not, the long trek over difficult tracks, the alarming nights and days, the frequent poises between life and death, the unique and thrilling moment when after all this cost of courage and endurance, the reward is suddenly found in a flower hitherto unknown to European eyes….

“We now, in 1937, accept
Lilium Regale, the regal lily, as a commonplace of our English gardens, forgetting that only so recently as 1905 was she discovered in Western China by Dr. Ernest Wilson. The bulbs were scarce and remained expensive for several years, but owing to the ease with which the regal lily may be grown from seed, only two or three years being needed to produce a flowering bulb, the nurserymen’s prices rapidly came down and the bulbs may now be obtained for a few pence.”


Above we have three quotes from three different books — each a tidbit about the history of three different kinds of lilies, whose images appear in the galleries below. These snippets from botany’s past always entertain me, and it was really only until I started searching for quotes to accompany my flower photos a couple of years ago that I began to realize how botanical history and the history of humanity were so entwined. The “big histories” we study formally tend to focus more on human events with, perhaps, only passing reference to natural history; but there is certainly something to be said for merging the study of human events — with plants!

The lilies in the photographs — which I took at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens toward the end of June — are a mixture of…

Lilium longiflorum, instantly recognizable and commonly known as the Easter Lily, with pure white flowers and nearly white or very light yellow throats;

Lilium candidum, often known as the Madonna Lily and similar in appearance to the Easter Lily, but displaying shades of light green on the flower petals, especially on their backsides or on the blossom’s throat; and

Lilium Regale, or Regal Lily, noted for red, pink, or burgundy colors on its tube-shaped, unopened flower buds and for retaining those colors on the backs of its petals.

Unless I got my differentiators wrong, you should now be able to identify which lilies are which in this post (and in the next two).

Thanks for taking a look!


  1. Pretty neat to think of the Phoenicians hawking the lily bulbs around the Mediterranean, telling the locals it would give their houses an up-to-date, classy Bronze Age look. These examples in your photos are great, very beautiful.

    1. Dale

      And then, and then, many centuries later…. the Victorians (especially the European ones) dig up some of those Mediterranean artifacts, cut lilies from their gardens and stick them in newfound vases — and give their houses yet another up-to-date, classy Bronze Age look!


      (Thank you!)

Leave a reply ...