Two plants in particular have become cherished symbols of the celebration of Easter — dogwood trees and Easter lilies.
Like most traditional holiday plants, the dogwood and Easter lily are not mentioned in the Bible. Their association over the years may have come from myths, literature, poetry, songs and art. Or it might be because these two plants happen to bloom around the time of year we celebrate Easter.
The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) that we are familiar with here in Alabama is native to eastern North America and not found in the Middle East. It is best known as a small understory tree, usually around 30 feet in height, with spectacular white flowers in early spring. It is popular among homeowners as an ornamental tree.
It seems our dogwood became a symbol of Easter and the crucifixion of Christ in large part due to a poem titled “The Legend of the Dogwood.” There are many versions, but the central theme is that the dogwood was once a mighty tree — until it was used to make the cross for the crucifixion of Christ. Afterwards it became cursed as a reminder of that fateful event. One poem states:
In Jesus time, the dogwood grew
To a stately size and a lovely hue.
‘Twas strong and firm, its branches interwoven
For the cross of Christ its timbers were chosen.
Seeing the distress at this use of their wood
Christ made a promise which still holds good:
Never again shall the dogwood grow
Large enough to be used so.
Slender and twisted it shall be
With blossoms like the cross for all to see.
As blood stains the petals marked in brown
The blossom’s center wears a thorny crown.
All who see it will remember me
Crucified on a cross from the dogwood tree.
Cherished and protected this tree shall be
A reminder to all of my agony.
The Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum) we see each Easter is not found in the Middle East either, but is actually native to southern Japan. Lilies, however, are mentioned in the Bible and are native to that area, but they are a different type than those that we call the Easter lily. Today, more than 95 percent of all bulbs grown for the potted Easter lily market are produced in a narrow coastal region straddling the California-Oregon border. Greenhouses all across the country then grow them for retail.
The lack of biblical references to the dogwood and Easter lily should not damper one’s Easter spirit. Many of Jesus’ parables and other biblical teachings involved ordinary, everyday things that people could see and touch and relate to. As with all of God’s creation, plants naturally become symbols.
The dogwood and Easter lily can still remind us of what Easter is all about. For many believers, the dogwood’s features and flowers are a living memory of the crucifixion of Christ. The white flowers of the Easter lily represent the resurrection of Christ — purity, virtue, innocence, hope and life. In fact, spring is seen as a time of growth, renewal and new life — also characteristics of Easter.
Whether it is an egg, bunny, sunrise, dogwood or lily, the most important lesson is that we are reminded in some way of the true meaning and significance of Easter. Take a moment to reflect, and have a blessed Easter!
For help on other home and garden questions, contact your local county Extension office or visit us online at www.aces.edu.
Shane Harris is an Extension Agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.