Calla lilies have many names. They are commonly known as the arum lily, calla, Easter lily, trumpet lily and pig lily, but the botanical name is ‘Zantedeschia’ – named after Italian botanist Giovanni Zantedeschi. Ironically the plant is not a lily at all. When it was discovered, it was thought to be so closely related to the lily family that it was named that way.
The Calla lily has always been known for its pretty large spathe (shaped like a tunnel), which encloses the finger-like spadix (the actual flower). It has heart-shaped leaves surrounding the flower which are a luscious dark green colour, and can sometimes be speckled. Today these wondrous flowers signify magnificence and beauty, being used often in wedding bouquets for that very reason. They are grown for their indoor and outdoor ornamental beauty, and the cut calla is also used as interior decoration because the flower can last for several weeks in a vase, and gives off a slight fragrance.
Calla lilies usually bloom from late winter into early spring, but because of extensive breeding to create the rainbow of colourful callas we can see today, some can bloom right through the year. Natively the calla grows in southern Africa in a predominately white, yellow or pink colour, growing to 1-2.5m tall with leaves 15–45cm long.
The ‘Zantedeschia aethiopica’, or ‘Lily of the Nile’, is the most common calla because it has been heavily cultivated for the Easter floral trade since the early 20th century – which is why it is commonly known as the ‘Easter lily’ in Britain and Ireland. This species tends to boast a white spathe and a yellow spadix, but also has other varieties including the ‘Green Goddess’ with green stripes on the spathes, ‘Red Desire’ with a red spadix (quite rare), and ‘Pink Mist’ with a pinkish base to the spathe.
‘Zantedeschia elliottiana’ (the ‘Golden Arum Lily’) is a similar plant which is always yellow with a yellow spadix, occasionally with a spike of bright yellow berries. On the other hand, the ‘Zantedeschia rehmanii’ (‘Pink Arum Lily’) has a smaller mauve to purple spathe, a yellow spadix and sword-shaped unmarked leaves. Some of the more rare species include the ‘Zantedeschia jucunda’, ‘Zantedeschia odorata’ and ‘Zantedeschia pentlandii’.
In the days of ancient Rome, the calla was used to mark the passage of the winter solstice because its winter bloom gives the effect of bringing light indoors during the darkest days of the year. The Romans valued them so much that they often decorated the edges of the bloom with filaments of gold – the greater the display of callas, the wealthier you were. Although valued and strikingly beautiful, the calla is poisonous to eat – it can cause severe burning sensations, swelling of the lips, tongue and throat, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. However, the leaves are still sometimes cooked and eaten.