The Wild Gardener

Whenever I see a calla lily, I’m reminded of a classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie scene: In a darkened theater, they effortlessly dance to a Gershwin tune, feet lightly tripping on a polished marble floor as they float past floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the fabled Manhattan skyline of the ’30s. That’s flower power!

When used in a Greek compound word, “calla” means “beautiful.” Unfortunately, this lovely flower lost its name, in a kind of botanical sweepstakes, to a single genus of aquatic plants, Calla palustris (a.k.a. the bog or water arum). These hardy plants (grown along pond margins for their glossy, heart-shaped leaves and their small white spathes that wrap around a yellow spadix) are a poor man’s calla from the fens and marshes. They are, however, rather lacking in romance: In Lapland, the rhizomes are dried, ground, boiled and macerated to make a kind of flour used in a baked delicacy called “missebroed” — a far cry from a shrimp cocktail in a Manhattan nightclub.

After that, callas were graced with the name of Richardia, but that term, too, was tossed out to avoid confusion with the existing genus of Richardia, one of whose members — the annual Mexican clover (R. scabra) — is usually grown as a green manure and cover crop.

So today, these classic blooms belong to the genus Zantedeschia, named in honor of Giovanni Zantedeschi (1773-1846), an Italian botanist and physician from Verona. The species name for the florist’s or garden calla, aethiopica, actually has nothing to do with Ethiopia, referring instead to the lands south of the world’s known geography at the time. The other common name, arum lily, is doubly incorrect: This plant does not belong to the genus Arum, nor is it a lily.

Zantedeschia aethiopica was introduced into Europe back in the early 1700s, when callas were planted in the Royal Garden in Paris. There, they were seen by gardeners from all over Europe, and in a short time, callas were imported into England. A few decades later, the original plant was followed by Z. albomaculata, a calla whose white flowers (surrounding a golden-yellow spadix) are in turn ringed by white-spotted leaves.

In describing what most people call the flower, we’ve used the terms spathe and spadix because, in structure, the calla’s flowers resemble those of our common jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), the spathe being a modified leaf that gracefully wraps around the spadix (a thick, club-shaped flower spike that actually bears the tiny flowers).

These little blossoms are found in male and female zones on the spadix. On average, the top three-quarters are male flowers and the bottom quarter female. The scented flowers attract a number of pollinators, including bees, flies and beetles. Cross-pollination is guaranteed, because the male flowers ripen before the females. Using a hand lens, you can easily see the pollen emerging from the males.

Amazingly enough, if the corms are planted so that, in winter, they rest in dry soil and are below the line of frozen earth above, callas become permanent residents of the garden.

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