Calla Lily-What Is It-Can I Grow It?

Well, it is extraordinary! Elegant creamy white, trumpet-shaped spathes rise above smooth green stalks and arrow-shaped leaves. We associate them with love, style, and art (Georgia O’Keef painted them). Lots of weddings couldn’t be conducted without them. They are endless subjects for photography. We think of them in white, but there are plenty of color options, including yellow, orange, rose, and maroon, and they have different requirements for growing conditions. 

People have found religious or mythical symbolism in this flower. We associate them with Venus in Roman mythology. It is named for the Greek word for beauty and is connected with Hera, wife of The Greek god Zeus.

But What Are the Facts?

But horticulture is a quirky old science. Some things that appear to be true are not true at all.

First, they are not even Lilies! They were first cataloged in the 18th Century by a Swedish Botanist as a Lily, and the name stuck. They are in the same family as Caladiums and Philodendron, two plants that look nothing like them.

The plot thickens; the flower is not even a flower. The white and, in many cases, vividly colored “flower” is a spathe. This is a modified leaf, and the flower hides inside.

Oh, it gets worse; despite all that love and purity stuff, the plant is poisonous. It is seriously toxic. Please don’t eat it and keep small children and pets away.

How Did Calla Lilies Get To Us

The plants originated in South Africa. (I garden in Florida, and we owe South Africa thanks for the many plants we enjoy.) I read a report by a botanist at the University of South Florida who wrote of driving on South African highways where the white Calla Lilies grew wild in streams and ditches around him.

I enjoyed that South Africans do not romanticize the plants as we do. The Afrikaans word for the lily is Varkoor which means “pig’s ear”!

The plants have a long history in Europe. They appear in illustrations from The Royal Garden of Paris in 1664.

How To Grow Calla Lilies

Location is the key to success. Spring is the time to plant the rhizomes in loose, well-drained soil. Use organically rich compost and maintain consistently moist soil. The compost keeps the temperature even. Don’t overwater; rhizomes can rot. It is common for gardeners to use the word bulb as a generalization, and I will do it also.

There are many ways to enjoy the plants. They grow in borders and beds; they perform successfully in containers and house plants. They are excellent cut flowers. (A section follows on making them last.) They flower for a long time, from 6-10 weeks.

Deadhead the blossoms after they are finished. This will increase the length of the bloom time. You deadhead Calla Lilies by cutting the stem near the bottom. Leave a little behind. This feeds the bulb below, looks neat, and increases your blossom period.

Calla Lilies are repellent to deer and rabbits. Some people speculate that a Calla border around the garden is a good idea…

What is the “Bulb”?

The Calla lily grows from a tuber which is an underground storage organ. It contains all the material the plant needs to produce leaves, stems, and flowers. A bigger rhizome has a bigger plant.

Growing The White Variety

These originate in western South Africa along the Atlantic coast and are accustomed to wet and cool locations. Their rhizome is raindrop shaped.


Growing the Colored Variety

These colorful varieties originate on the eastern side of the country, along the Indian Ocean. They are accustomed to more arid conditions and need brighter sun.

For those of us in Florida, this presents a problem. Our soil, even with good amendments drains quickly. It is more of a challenge to maintain the combination of sun and moist soil. Using them as a container plant is a good solution.

This one has a circular, flatter bulb.

How To Plant Them

Choosing the rhizomes; should be flat, firm, and with several visible eyes. In the case of this plant, bigger is better. Ensure good drainage in the garden or pots—plant in soil that has been amended with compost or a good quality potting soil.

Add a slow-release fertilizer, and place the bulbs with the flatter part and the eyes up.

These are great plants. Each bulb will produce multiple stems and blooms. In addition, each will grow new bulbs. This is why, in cold climates, they raise and store them over the winter.

Your volume of plants will increase over the years. Think of them more as an investment than cash flow!

Plant 2-4″ deep will protect them from too much heat and support the many stems each will produce. Space each plant 12″ apart. You should see shoots in 2 weeks and flowers in about 13-16 weeks. The bloom season is considerable.

Planting in Containers

For one bulb, the minimum pot size should be 10-12″ in diameter. Fill the pot 1/2 full of good quality potting soil. Place the rhizome 3″ below the rim, and cover to within 1/2″ of the top of the container. Plant with slow-release fertilizer and maintain steady moist soil. You can let the colored varieties dry down slightly between watering.

Climate Conditions

The hardy plants may be left in the ground from zone 8 and beyond. Look here for your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. In most cases, if your zone number is lower than 8, take the rhizomes up and store them for the winter.

There are now many varieties of Calla Lilies, and their hardiness zones vary. Check each one when you buy them. If you collect a lot over time, label them and make notes. It is easy to mix them up.

In cooler territory start them indoors in pots as early as one month before the average last frost date.


Calcium is critical to Calla Lilies; you can test your soil for this; the bone meal will add calcium. Use good compost with a balance of nitrogen and carbon. An excess of nitrogen creates beautiful foliage but few flowers.

Use As Cut Flowers

Calla Lilies are a successful and long-lasting cut flower. They will last 2-3 weeks in the vase with the proper preparation.

Here is what to do:

Soak the plants the night before cutting them

Cut early in the day using a sharp knife and a diagonal cut.

Keep them out of the direct sun

Change the water at least every two days

What a nice gift for someone sick or otherwise stuck in the house!

What To Do When All Good Things End

Calla lilies owe some of their popularity to the fact that they bloom early and long. You can enjoy the blooms for 3-8 weeks.

When the blooms are ending, stop the water and feed. In a climate in which they are hardy, leave them in the ground. Trim off the dead foliage and remove flowers. We do not want them to produce seeds.

In colder climates, cut the stems back to 1.” Dig the tubers up. Wipe off the soil and allow them to dry over several days. Store in a cool, dry place.

If you love these flowers, you ccoulddo it all again next year!