SMITH RIVER, Calif. — The sale of lily bulbs leading up to the annual Easter season each April saw another increase in the most recent report from the Del Norte County Agricultural Department.
The 2012 crop report compiled by that department indicated 78,321 cases of bulbs were sold at an average of $108.56 per case. That’s a total value of $8.5 million — $1 million more than 2011 and a $1.5 million increase over 2010.
Sales figures for bulbs across the state border in Oregon’s Curry County were not available.
The potted Easter lilies in U.S. and Canada had a wholesale value of $40 million in 2012, according to an industry spokesman.
Numbers haven’t been finalized yet for the 2013 bulb sales leading up to Easter last month.
“It’s been a pretty steady market,” Matt Westbrook, co-owner of Palmer Westbrook of Smith River, said of lily bulbs.
“Even through the bad times and the good times of the economy, because it is a holiday plant, the number of sales every year remain about the same,” he said. “They don’t fluctuate like other crops might. It’s a successful crop with about the same amount of sales for each of the past 15 to 20 years.”
The bulbs for about 10 million Easter lilies are harvested in August and October in fields on both sides of the western-most edge of the California-Oregon border. The bulbs are sold to nurseries and after about six weeks in cold storage, they are transferred in early December to greenhouses where they grow into the plant people are so used to seeing at Easter in April.
“The total number of bulbs sold has been reasonably consistent for quite a number of years,” said Rob Miller, owner of Dahlstrom and Watt Bulb Farms of Smith River. “The climate here is ideal for a consistent production of the bulbs, the soil is ideal and the people who know how to grow them are here.”
The Easter lily is native to the southern islands of Japan. During the 1800s, bulbs were shipped to the U.S. Then in 1919, a World War I soldier from Oregon returned home with a suitcase full of lily bulbs. He gave them to family and friends who began growing them as a hobby.
But after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 by the Japanese, shipments of lily bulbs to the U.S. quickly ended. Many growers of lily bulbs in the U.S. then turned their hobby into commercial businesses. During the mid-1940s, there were about 1,000 lily bulb growers along the Pacific Coast from Long Beach, Calif., to Vancouver, Canada.
That number gradually decreased, however, as growers discovered growing quality and consistent bulbs required demanding details and specific conditions. Today four family-owned companies with fields in a region straddling the California-Oregon border grow 99 percent of all the bulbs needed for the blooming potted Easter lily plants at Easter.
Those four operations are members of the Easter Lily Research Foundation, formerly the Pacific Bulb Growers Association, in Harbor, Ore.
“As a group we decided the only way the industry was going to survive was to keep doing research on the crop so we could continue to grow consistent bulbs,” Miller said. “It’s pretty sophisticated farming so we need the research to help us deal with any bulb or soil issues.”
The growers established the Easter Lily Research Foundation when Oregon State University withdrew its management of the association around the year 2000.
The lily signifies rebirth and a new beginning in the Christian tradition because it rises and blooms into a beautiful flower from a scaly bulb in the ground.
The marketplace for the bulbs is across the U.S. and into Canada. Miller said sales outside those two countries are insignificant.