Calla lilies are misnamed, as they are neither callas nor lilies but members of the genus zantedeschia, sometimes also called arum lilies. Originally from southern Africa, zantedeschias were first brought to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The "flower" consists of a spike of tiny yellow fertile flowers surrounded by a large, colorful spathe, which is not actually a flower but a bract (a modified leaf) and therefore lasts longer than most flowers. This long "bloom" period has made zantedeschias popular as both houseplants and cut flowers. The meanings assigned to zantedeschias derive from the white color of the bracts in the original species (growers have since bred many other colors, including yellow, orange, pink, purple and green), the elegant funnel or trumpet shape of the spathe, and its long life.
The white color of the spathe has suggested purity and weddings to many people, and from its earliest arrival in Europe down to the present day, zantedeschias have been used as flowers for wedding bouquets. In addition to its white color, the curve of the spathe suggests womanly beauty to many, intensifying its connection with brides. In particular, zantedeschias have been assigned as the flower of the sixth wedding anniversary.
Perhaps paradoxically, these white flowers have also been associated with funerals. Their long life as cut flowers suggests rebirth and resurrection to many people. The funnel-shaped spathe looks to some like the bell of a trumpet, recalling the trumpets that will announce the resurrection of all souls at the end of time in the Christian tradition.
Perhaps because of this awe-inspiring association, some books list the meaning of zantedeschias as "majestic beauty."
On the silver screen
Katherine Hepburn's climactic speech in the 1937 movie "The Stage Door," which begins, "The calla lilies are in bloom again ...", made both Hepburn and calla lilies famous. In the speech, Hepburn's character goes on to say they are strange flowers because they can be used for both weddings and funerals, highlighting once again their double association with both love and death.
A "modern" flower
Zantedeschias were a favorite subject of the painter Georgia O'Keeffe, known for her larger-than-life studies of individual blossoms, and also appear in many works by the painter Diego Rivera. Zantedeschias' simple, elegant shape, without ruffles or petals, appeals to modern tastes. They were very popular in the 1920s and '30s, and have remained so to the present.
Care of plants
In their natural habitat in Africa, zantedeschias live in marshes. As houseplants, they like bright indirect light with some direct sun, but will develop scorched leaves in very hot and sunny locations. They will die at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so they must be kept indoors during part of the year in much of the United States. Water them plentifully in spring and summer when they are growing; do not let the soil dry out. Reduce watering after midsummer, when the leaves begin to die back. Fertilize every two weeks with a diluted fertilizer while they are in bloom, and not at all during the rest of the year.