COLLEGE STATION — Most marketers would give up if told their product would only sell for 14 days out of the year — and a different two weeks each year at that.
But that narrow market window hasn’t stifled Easter lily growers who pocket more than $38 million annually for their effort.
The challenge is that Easter Sunday varies from March 22 to April 25 each year; the chore is to control temperatures day and night so the finicky lilies grow to a perfect 20 inches with puffy buds on Palm Sunday, with one week to open by Easter (which is April 12 this year). It’s a science, and that’s why Dr. Harvey Lang, assistant horticulture professor has his students at Texas A&M University carefully measuring and plotting their plant’s growth in class each week.
“It’s very challenging due to the date of the holiday changing each year,” Lang said. “We are teaching the students, who may one day be nursery producers, how to make production decisions early on in the plant’s cycle to time the crop for Easter.”
Lang said the perfect Easter lily is the result of precise temperature control. Too cool or too warm, too soon or too late will throw the growing season completely out of sync. To keep tabs on the lilies, students in Lang’s classes are learning a technique to graphically track how fast a plant matures and how tall it grows over time.
Apparently all this plant nit-pickiness is worth learning how to capture the window of opportunity. More than 20 producers in Texas hit the bud stage right each year to put about half a million pots valued at about $2 million on the wholesale market, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationally, about 10 million pots, valued at more than $38 million, will make it to the shelves this year by April 7, the USDA reports.
Typically, Easter lily bulbs produced in the Pacific northwest are shipped to growers across the United States by mid-October. The bulbs are planted and brought into greenhouses by late December. When the plants have sprouted and grown to about four inches, a grower can predict with some certainty and a little detailed snooping about how much it has to grow before the flower buds form.
“We know that Easter lilies have formed every leaf they will ever have by the time they are about four to six inches tall,” Lang explained. “So, using tweezers and a magnifying glass, the leaves are peeled off of several plants to estimate the number of leaves per plant for the crop.”
The grower then sets the sight on about 30 days before Palm Sunday (April 5 this year) for getting all the tiny leaves on the stem to unfold to reveal the small flower buds on the plants. If growers reach this point on time, they can pretty well be assured that they’ll have the plants in full bloom for Easter.
“So in our class, we go in weekly and count how many leaves have unfolded off the stem to get the leaf unfolding rate. That’s plotted on a chart,” Lang said. If too many or too few leaves are unfolding, the daily average temperatures in the greenhouse are adjusted to either slow or hasten the process.
But manipulating the average daily temperature to control leaf unfolding has to involve day and night temperatures as well, Lang noted, because that is what controls the mature height of the plant.
“If the day temperature is closer to the night temperature, that produces a shorter plant,” the horticulturist said.
The average daily temperature in a greenhouse might be 70 degrees, he explained, but if one plant has grown with 70 degrees in the day and 60 at night while another has grown with 55 degrees in the day and 75 at night, the average daily temperature is 65 degrees. Both plants will bloom at the same time, but one will be tall and the other short.
“Understanding the impact of day and night temperatures on plant height is new for growers,” Lang said. “We are teaching the students to do this using software that costs about $1,000, so some growers may be reluctant to do that.”
He said rather than keeping track of and adjusting temperatures, some producers may choose to use growth altering chemicals.
“But we are looking for alternative ways to control pests and other conditions of growth,” Lang said. “That makes growing Easter lilies very challenging due to the different date of the holiday each year.”