How to grow and care for calla lilies

Calla lilies are beautiful and varied in color. Learn how to grow and care for them indoors and out, in the garden, or in pots.

Calla lilies are a familiar sight at weddings and in formal bouquets, but lovers of these blooms don't have to limit their enjoyment to floral arrangements. Even relatively inexperienced gardeners can successfully grow callas in a wide range of climates. The trick to growing calla lilies successfully is to understand their nature and their needs.

First of all, the calla is not a lily. It comes from a different family altogether. Like many beautiful plants, the calla lily comes from the moist warm climate of South Africa. The botanical name of the species is Zantedeschia. The word calla comes from the Greek, and means beautiful. Callas are also known as Arum Lilies and are described as tender, herbaceous and aquatic, deciduous perennials.

They were first imported to Europe and America during the late 19th Century, and for some time callas was a popular flower for funeral arrangements. Sometimes they were referred to as Gabriel Lilies because of their resemblance to trumpets. During the 1920's and 1930's numerous artists and painters portrayed the calla's simple, elegant form, and since that time it has become a favorite flower for weddings, rather than funerals.

Calla lilies are usually less than two feet tall, and have attractive, sometimes speckled leaves. The lovely curved and pointed flower is actually a spathe or modified leaf sheath which shelters the inconspicuous true flowers and the seed producing body. After it blooms the stalk holding the spathe droops conveniently to the ground, giving the seeds access to the dirt and protection in which to grow. As will be explained below, most callas are grown from rhizomes, but they can also be grown from seed and some enthusiastic gardeners do so.

In its original form the calla is a pure and almost luminous white. However is Zantedeschia aethipica, the original white calla lily, is not the only variety available to gardeners today. Plant breeders have produced Zantedeschia Elliottiana, a yellow variety and the smaller, 16 inch Zantedeschia rehmannii, in a variety of pink rose violet and lavender shades. Other varieties have purple or dark throated spathes. These colored varieties tend to be stronger in color the first year they are grown, and are likely to revert to white if grown over time.

In its native South Africa, the calla lily grows wild in ditches along the roads, and it will thrive with equal vigor in warmer climates in other parts of the world. In the United States, callas thrive in the Deep South and sheltered West Coast gardens, but gardeners in colder climates can also produce beautiful blooms. They can either plant their callas in pots, which they shelter over the winter, or dig them up and bring them inside during the winter, replanting them in the spring.

This process of digging up and replanting is easy, because like the bearded iris, the calla lily produces a rhizome, a type of adapted underground stem that produces underground root and above ground leaf growth. Although callas can also be grown from seed, the easiest way to grow them is by planting the rhizome, which quickly develops into a mature plant. These rhizomes are tough and easy to handle. When they are dormant, they can be dried and separated to produce more plants. Gardener's sites on the Internet show fascinating and informative pictures of both roots and new aboveground growth sprouting out of the top of the rhizome. Calla lily rhizomes are readily available from nurseries and plant growers, and also from successful gardeners who may have extra rhizomes to give away.

Callas like a bright warm setting. If growing them in the ground, plant the rhizomes 2 inches apart and 4-6 inches deep in the correct combination of moisture and light for your particular climate. Callas prefer bright morning light with some shelter later in the afternoon, but in hotter climates they will tolerate and even appreciate a lot of shade. If your summers are dry make sure they get plenty of water. They can take wet feet, and are sometimes grown on the borders of streambeds and other aquatic features. Calla lilies will grow in pots or in the ground.

It's also important to consider winter weather when planting your callas. Callas are perennial in warm climates where winter weather doesn't go below freezing. In areas like USDA Zones 8 and 9 where there is a short, relatively mild winter they can survive outdoors by going dormant. In mild West Coast climates they will go wild and flourish just as they do in South Africa. In a colder climate the rhizomes need to be dug up and brought indoors to winter over in a cool dry basement. Let them dry thoroughly and then hang them in plastic or mesh bags in a cool well-ventilated area to protect them from mold. This is a good time to separate the rhizomes if they're getting big. Make sure they have a chance to dry and form a callus before they are planted. This protects them from bacteria in the soil. Many gardeners recommend hanging the bags from the basement rafters so bugs and critters can't get to them.

If grown in pots, make sure pots are at least 41/2 inches in diameter to give the bulb enough space to spread its roots properly. Combinations of different sized bulbs can be grown in the same pot if. The bigger the pot, the more bulbs can fit into it, but don't overcrowd. Three good-sized rhizomes are the right amount for a 12-inch pot. Make sure to position the rhizomes with the eyes or sprouts facing up. Plant them in good rich potting soil mix, between 3 and 4 inches deep. They like to be a bit root-bound and will often bloom better in pots the second year. They may go dormant after blooming and can be allowed to rest without water for two or three months or brought inside to winter over in a cool dry basement.

Callas will also grow indoors in bright light and a warm, 70-degree temperature. If grown as a houseplant, the calla can easily be transplanted when it becomes rootbound. Just place it in the next larger size pot without disturbing the roots, and fill in the space along the side with fresh soil. Water well and feed with weak liquid fertilizer every two to three weeks while they are growing and blooming. While they are blooming, remove the spent flowers so that the plant saves its energy for more flowers or root growth. When the plant begins to die back and go dormant, stop fertilizing.

So take heart, calla lovers. Even in the coldest climate you can have beautiful leaves and spathes somewhere in your home or garden if you respect the needs of this tough and sensitive plant. Buy good quality rhizomes, plant them properly, and make sure they get plenty of light, warmth and water, and let them rest when they grow dormant. With proper care and treatment your callas will grow beautifully for many years.

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