All About Calla and Arum lilies

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This article delves into the fascinating world of arum lilies and calla lilies, covering everything from their origins and botanical details to their versatile uses as garden plants, houseplants, and cut flowers. Discover the differences between bulbs and rhizomes, and get answers to common questions about these beautiful plants.

What’s in a Name?

Members of the arum family share the family name Araceae, but beyond that, they have little in common. The plants now known as Zantedeschia have undergone several name changes over time. Originating from southern Africa, they were sent to the Netherlands in 1687 and named Arum aethiopicum. In 1733, Linnaeus called them Calla aethiopica. By 1818, German botanist Kunth renamed them Richardia africana, and later Richardia aethiopica. Eventually, all eight African species were named Zantedeschia, after the Italian physician and botanist Zantedeschia (1773-1864).

The calla lily (Zantedeschia) symbolizes beauty and happiness, with legends suggesting that Greek gods drank nectar from their flowers. However, all parts of the Zantedeschia are toxic, making them unsuitable for children and pets, though deer and rabbits tend to avoid them.

Calla Lilies

Zantedeschia, often shortened to ‘calla’, means ‘beautiful’. In England, Zantedeschia aethiopica is commonly referred to as the arum lily. Two of the eight Zantedeschia species, Z. aethiopica and Z. odorata, have rhizomes and prefer marshy soil, making them hardy garden plants in the right conditions. Z. aethiopica is known for its large white flowers and several cultivars like ‘Green Goddess’. Z. odorata, found only on the Bokkeveld plateau in Africa, is notable for its freesia-like fragrance.

Bulb and Calla Lilies

The other six species of Zantedeschia have bulbs and do not thrive in overly wet soil. These include:

  1. Zantedeschia albomaculata
  2. Zantedeschia elliottiana
  3. Zantedeschia jucunda
  4. Zantedeschia pentlandii
  5. Zantedeschia rehmannii
  6. Zantedeschia valida

These species come in a range of colors from white to yellow, orange, red, purple, and pink. The Z. elliottiana and Z. rehmannii species have been extensively crossbred to create hybrids with varied appearances and colorations.

Flower and Inflorescence

The inflorescence of Zantedeschia consists of a spadix surrounded by a spathe. The actual flowers are inconspicuous and located on the spadix, which is a fleshy spike. Female flowers grow at the bottom and male flowers above. Post-pollination, berries form and are protected by the spathe. This structure is characteristic of the arum family.

Versatile Plants

Zantedeschia lilies with bulbs are summer-flowering plants, like dahlias, planted in spring to bloom in summer. These bulbs are versatile, suitable for garden planting or pots. In gardens, they should be planted after the last frost, while in pots they can be started earlier indoors. The bulbs have distinctive ‘eyes’ from which stems grow, and they should be planted deeply.

Garden Plant

Calla lilies thrive in garden soil with proper care. They need a layer of leaves or straw for winter protection or should be dug up and stored dry to survive the winter. They prefer sunny or partially shaded spots sheltered from the wind and need regular watering and occasional fertilizing.


Calla lilies also make striking houseplants, available in various colors. They bloom well in cool spots and require regular watering and feeding. After flowering, the leaves wither, and the plant needs a rest period indoors without watering until the next growing season.

Cut Flower

Calla lilies are popular cut flowers due to their long vase life. They are grown on around 300 hectares in the Netherlands and are available from May to October. Cut the flowers with a sharp knife and place them in a vase with a clean water solution. They are appreciated in various floral arrangements for their range of colors.

Classification into Groups of Zantedeschia

Group 1: Hardy species like Z. aethiopica and Z. odorata with rhizomes, blooming from late winter to late spring indoors or in greenhouses.

Group 2: Bulbous species, less winter hardy, classified as summer bulbs, and blooming in summer.

Symbolism and Art

In Victorian times, calla lilies symbolized sexuality and were used in the language of flowers. Artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Diego Rivera depicted Zantedeschia in their works, highlighting both their beauty and social significance.

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