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History of the Calla Lily

The Calla Lily
A Timeless Beauty

Since the days of ancient Rome the Calla Lily has been treasured as a flower of celebration. First cherished as a celebration of light, then a funeral flower, in today’s world the Calla Lily has become one of the most desired flowers brides use to celebrate their wedding day. It is associated with the lily as a symbol of purity and as such, these spectacular flowers are beginning to rival the rose in popularity for bridal bouquets. The Calla Lily, originally from the continent of Africa, is rich with history, and it is an elegant and colorful flower to enjoy on any occasion. Either as a cut flower, or in your garden, the Calla Lily’s bloom is a show-stopper, and its wide range of colors make it a special flower to enjoy.

The Calla Lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica, is often called the white or common arum lily. Although most often referred to as Calla “Lily,” the calla is not related to true lilies (genus Lilium) or to the lily family. The Calla is an arum and closely related to houseplants such as the philodendron, spathiphyllum, pothos, monstera, and caladium. In the wild, the Calla Lily prefers marshy areas. One of its closest relatives is the Skunk Cabbage, which also prefers a marsh environment, and is one of the most abundant and earliest-blooming northern wildflowers. Some varieties of Calla Lilies are fragrant, though thankfully, they do not share the pungent odor of the Skunk Cabbage!

Most Calla Lilies have colorful spathes, which is a modified leaf; what we think of as the flower petal. The central spike or spadix is the real flower! The stalks are like giant celery stalks and the leaves are heart-shaped and have a luscious, dark green color that may sometimes be speckled. The common Calla Lily usually spire to 3 feet and produce snowy white spathes 4 to 6 inches across with yellow centers. Other callas are generally somewhat smaller, varying from 1 to 2 feet in height. The small Calla Lilies are called Minis.

According to Martha Stewart’s Living, volume 2, The Calla Lily was the flower that the early Romans used to mark the passage of the winter solstice. The Romans planted the Calla Lily just inside the portal to their homes, timing it to bloom for winter solstice and giving the effect of bringing the light indoors during the darkest days of the year. The greater the display of Calla Lilies usually meant the wealthier the resident that lived there. The Romans valued them so much that they often decorated the edges of the bloom with filaments of gold. The Calla Lilies of Roman times were said to be much larger than today’s varieties, and often were as tall as seven feet!

Supposedly, the Calla Lily was named after Professor Giovanni Zantedeschi, 1773-1846, an Italian physician and botanist. The name aethiopica is thought to mean south of Egypt and Libya, though the word appears like it is related to Ethiopia in some manner. It is not know exactly when and how the Calla Lily was introduced to Europe, but it appeared in an illustrated account of the Royal Garden in Paris in 1664.

Over time, the Calla Lily became associated with the celebration of funerals. Most likely, because they bloomed profusely during the darkest time of the year, winter solstice. Katharien Hepburn’s famous whispered line, “The Calla lilies are in bloom again!” in Stage Door, was a subtle reference to the dying of the light. At Gallery Florist, our designers are often asked to create sympathy pieces with Calla Lilies, though the majority of the blooms we sell are for arrangements and wedding flowers. The Society of American Florists feels that Calla lilies “are on their way to becoming one of the top flowers, in terms of consumer demand.”

According to www.yalepress.yale.edu, during the second half of the nineteenth century, the exotic South African Calla Lily was introduced in the United States, and began to appear as a subject in American art. The flower became even more popular with artists after Freud provided a sexual interpretation of its form that added new levels of meaning to depictions of it. The Calla Lily soon became a recurring motif in works by important painters and photographers, particularly Georgia O’Keeffe, who depicted the flower so many times and in such provocative ways, that by the early 1930’s she became known as “the lady of the lilies.”

A recent exhibition at the Brooks Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe and the Calla Lily in American Art, 1860-1940, featured more than 50 depictions of this elegant bloom by over 30 different artists, with eight pieces by O’Keeffe.

As a cut flower, Calla Lilies last a long time in a vase when the water is changed regularly and floral preservative is used. Graceful blooms are usually used as a vocal point in an arrangement. A clear, tall glass vase filled with white or colored Calla Lilies is an elegant addition to any counter or coffee table when you are having company over. The most common colors include white, yellow, pink, lavender, rose, orange and green, though there are others, such as the black Calla Lily, which is not a true black, but close enough to deserve its name. A very versatile flower, it goes well with the elegance of roses or the bright colors of tropical flowers, and they are available year round!

When you take any floral arrangement home, place the arrangement away from direct sunlight, heat vents, air conditioners and drafts. Also, the top of the television set is a bad place for any fresh arrangement. For the best results, add water and remove dying blooms and foliage daily. To prolong vase life, every four to five days re-cut the stems & clean the container. Rearrange remaining flowers, adding mixture of water & floral preservative to your “new” arrangement. Floral preservative is recommended and is available at your local florist. Vase life is normally about seven to 10 days, though if treated well, it may be much more.

Calla Lily Bridal Bouquet According to our Wedding Consultant at Gallery Florist, Kathleen Cunningham, as well as the Society of American Florist, Calla Lilies are one of the most preferred flowers of brides. This year many of the brides who have booked weddings are choosing the sophisticated Calla Lily. A bridal bouquet of Calla Lilies can be spectacular when done by an accomplished floral designer.

Calla Lilies grow well in Clark County gardens and are a perennial growing from fleshy roots called rhizomes, which we call bulbs. A local supplier of Calla Lily bulbs, and the farm where we, at Gallery Florist buy the majority of our cut Calla Lilies, is ZCALLAS, a wholesale distributor in Tillamook, Oregon. Their bulbs are available from their retail website, www.flowersbulbs.com and are Oregon grown. They can assure you what varieties will grow best in Clark County and the care needed for growing them.

Whether you will be in need of wedding flowers or sympathy flowers in the near future, a bouquet of fresh Calla Lilies in your home or office can brighten anyone’s day. The ancient Romans knew it as a special flower and appreciated it. Today, as it did for the Romans, the Calla Lily is a thing of timeless beauty that excels in celebration of weddings, sympathy or to bring light into one’s life and celebrate the joy of living.

Resources:

Websites of interest and some of the sources for this article:

www.flowersbulbs.com
www.safnow.org
www.authorsenter.com
www.plantzafrica.com
www.brooksmuseum.org
www.yalepress.yale.edu
www.flowermonthblub.com
www.thenhistorychannel.co.uk