Since its accidental introduction to the island in the mid-nineteenth century, the Easter lily has been synonymous with springtime in Bermuda. And while no one can deny its pleasing aesthetic, the plant’s real value to the island is measured in the economic boost its exportation from our shores provided. Here we explore the culture and business of the Bermuda Easter lily.

  • History
  • As local legend has it, the Easter lily arrived in Bermuda on February 17, 1855, in the form of bulbs safely tucked away inside the luggage of the Bettelheim family on their way from Japan. Dr Bernard Bettelheim, the patriarch of the family, was an Anglican medical missionary who, along with his wife and children, had spent eight years living in Ryukyu. The Bettelheims were on their way back home to England when the ship they were travelling aboard, the Sophia Burbridge, was badly damaged in a storm and put into St. George’s for repairs. They ended up staying about a month in Bermuda and while here spent time with postmaster James Thies and the Reverend J.A.J. Roberts. To show their gratitude for the hospitality shown to them during their stay, the family gifted each of the two men a few of their precious bulbs which they had taken from a Japanese lily. It is said that Roberts was a keen gardener and planted his bulbs at his rectory in Hamilton, while Thies planted his in St. George’s, thus establishing the species in Bermuda soil for the first time. Conveniently the flowers bloomed in time for Easter and became known as the Bermuda Easter lily. 

Dr Bettelheim couldn’t possibly have known how impactful his contribution to the island of Bermuda ultimately was. His gift of a few bulbs was both the foundation of a whole industry and a magnificent contribution to our springtime culture. Bermuda came to be known as the “Easter Isle” thanks to the blooming lily fields and to this day a bouquet of Bermuda Easter lilies is presented annually to Her Majesty the Queen.

Photo by University of The Ryukyus Library
  • The Significance of St. David’s
  • Before the start of the Second World War, St. David’s was the chief lily-growing district. According to an annual report from the Department of Agriculture, in the years between 1927 and 1941, 67 percent of the acreage used for lily growing was in St. David’s. Indeed, some of the island’s most prolific growers—including Howard and Reeve Smith, Eugene Outerbridge, A.W. West and Malcolm Hollis—had land in St. David’s upon which to grow their lilies and regarded the soil found there to be the best for lily cultivation. Much in the same way that families today drive around to look at the lights at Christmas, back then families and visitors to the island would make a special journey to St. David’s during the springtime to take in the lilies in full bloom. Sadly, during the Second World War the lily fields of St. David’s were allocated to the construction of Kindley Field for use by the US Army Air Force base, and the longtime growers were forced to move to other parts of the island.
  • The King of the Easter Lily
  • St. David’s islander and prolific grower Howard E.D. Smith began planting Easter lilies with his brother Reeve in 1897. He developed two different varieties of lily: He propagated the howardii (named after himself) when experimenting with how to free lilies from disease and later, the harrisii, characterised by its star-like appearance. For his contributions to horticulture and Bermuda’s lily trade, Smith was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty the Queen in 1948.
  • The Business of Bulbs
  • When it came to the business of growing and harvesting bulbs, it wasn’t always pretty. When the lilies were at or near full bloom, they had to be stripped of their flowers so that the plant’s strength could be entirely dedicated to the growing of its bulb. Imagine the horror of watching a white field of perfect Easter lilies being stripped, with the sweetly scented flowers being tossed aside in a heap at the side of the field.

While the flowers bloomed in spring, the bulbs weren’t harvested until the summer months when they were dug up, packed in dry sand and shipped to the United States where they were potted and grown again by American florists. Between 1939 and 1945, during the height of Bermuda’s lily industry, farmers exported a total of 4,118,800 bulbs, helping to sustain themselves and the island during the Second World War.

Photo by Jayde Gibbons
  • Lily Fields
  • “There is no finer spectacle than to see these lilies in full bloom when grown under field conditions. The magnificent pure white trumpet-shaped blooms, from three to six inches across the mouth of the flower and with yellow stamens, remind one of the well-known quotation from the New Testament: ‘Consider the lilies how they grow, they toil not, they spin not and yet I say unto you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’” – Elizabeth Jones
  • The Anatomy of an Easter Lily
  • How to Care for Your Easter Lilies
  • Choosing the Perfect Easter Lily
  • Get them early! If you want a blooming arrangement for Easter Sunday, make sure to purchase them a week beforehand. Look for flowers that haven’t yet bloomed but instead have white-ish buds. Green buds will take over a week to open.
  • Caring for a Potted Plant
  • If you’re buying a potted lily plant, you want to find a space in your home that gets bright but indirect sunlight. In order to ensure you’re not overwatering your lily plant, test the soil with your finger beforehand: if the soil is dry go ahead and give the plant water, but if it’s even slightly damp hold off.

Once all the flowers are gone you can plant your lily bulb outdoors. Make sure to choose a sunny location and plant your bulb about six inches deep. Water it thoroughly and likely it will bloom again next spring and for many years to come.

  • Beware of the Cat
  • It’s important to note that Easter lilies are poisonous to cats, so if you have a cat it’s not a good idea to bring lilies into your home.