Calla Lilies

CALLA LILIES grow well in wet areas much, like our native Louisiana irises. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter

 I came across a beautiful display of calla lilies when visiting a local nursery recently. They were so striking, grouped together with vibrant colors of yellow, white, red, purple and burgundy flowers against their large, glossy, deep green, slender, arrow-shaped leaves. 

The funnel-shaped flowers are produced on single 2-to-4-foot stems, making them ideal for cut flowers. They last a week or more when cut and placed in water. Keeping fresh water and making new stem cuts each time you change the water will help them last the best. 

As cut flowers, I just love these, but I never gave much thought to incorporating them into my landscape. As a matter of fact, when I was married, I carried a dozen white calla lilies as my bouquet. It was simply elegant. 

Could something that appears so dainty and elegant actually do well in a landscape in Louisiana? The answer is, of course, why not?

Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) is native to South Africa and actually grows from a tuber. It can be seen in recorded history depicted in illustrations from 1664 in a drawing of the Royal Garden in Paris. Georgia O’Keeffe, an American artist, has used them in many of her famous paintings. 

But these flowers go back even further. The name calla is derived from the Ancient Greek word for beauty, Kallos. In Greek mythology, Zeus had a son named Hercules with a mortal woman while married to Hera who was also a god. Zeus tricked Hera into feeding Hercules her milk, giving him divine super powers. When she woke up, she threw Hercules away from her and two drops of the milk fell to the Earth forming the most beautiful flower: the calla lily. 

It was first called calla lily in the 18th century; however, they are not lilies at all. They are in a whole different family called Araceae that includes caladiums and philodendrons. 

That’s not the only thing that is deceiving about callas. The large flowers that we have grown to love are not actually flowers at all. That structure is actually a modified leaf called a spathe, and the real flower is a very inconspicuous yellow column located in the center of the spathe. In fact, the peace lily is in the same family, and its scientific name is Spathiphyllum. The name implies that its flower is a spathe, and indeed it is. 

Calla lilies have similar growth requirements as irises; they are excellent plants for poorly drained areas that tend to stay wet. Calla lilies are susceptible to drought and require adequate moisture during their growing season. 

Fall is the best time to plant dormant tubers, but tubers may be hard to find at that time of year. Tubers are typically available in spring. However, they can be planted in early spring and still produce great plants. In some nurseries, container plants are available. These can be transplanted directly into landscape beds. 

Be sure to plant in a partial-sun location that gets four to six hours of sun a day, particularly morning sun. When planted in full sun, the foliage may turn yellow. And in full shade, you’ll get little flower production. So partial sun is the way to go. 

If you are using tubers, plant them an inch below the soil surface and space them 12 to 18 inches apart. It’s best to incorporate some organic matter or compost when planting, and be sure to mulch to conserve moisture and suppress weeds. Fertilize established plants in February with an all-purpose fertilizer. Granular or liquid fertilizer can be used. 

Callas begin their active growth in the fall when the days shorten and temperatures begin to drop. The foliage will continue to grow over winter, depending on the severity. Hard freezes will not kill the plant, just slow the growth, and may cause some damage to the leaves. This may delay blooming until late spring. 

With a milder winter like those in south Louisiana, plants can be full grown in February and blooming by March. Callas perform best in cooler weather. So come May, as the temperatures rise, they will stop active growth and no longer bloom. 

Plants will be semi-dormant by late summer, which is a great time to divide and move the tubers. Fall will be their forte once again, and the cycle will start over. 

So don’t be afraid to try these in your landscape. Remember, they are great in wet areas, which seem to be my whole yard, especially this time of year. Give them a try and enjoy the gorgeous flowers. 

The colors of the calla lily, much like roses, symbolize something. White symbolizes purity and innocence. Pink symbolizes appreciation and admiration. Purple symbolizes charm and passion. Yellow symbolizes gratitude.

Calla lilies are a perfect gift for valentines, which is right around the corner. Give someone a potted calla lily, and they can plant it in the garden. That way, they will enjoy them year after year straight from their own backyard.

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