“Lillian Cobb went over by the old barn with me this afternoon and we picked some yellow Forsythia for our houses. This morning I picked from the greenhouse our first Calla Lily – also a spray of Begonia which has not opened yet but is full of buds and a very nice bunch of Sweet Peas. It was clear all day.”
This entry was recorded in Alice Hand Callaway’s (1912-1998) garden journal on January 8, 1937. The daily log stands out since it is one of the earliest references to calla lilies being grown in the greenhouse at the estate. In the intervening 75 years, the calla lily has been closely associated with Hills and Dales, but evidence indicates that they have been cultivated at the estate for even longer. In our archives, an 1888 article from the LaGrange Reporter states that “spotted calla lilies” were cultivated by Sarah Ferrell, who developed the gardens in the second half of the 19th century. We also know Ida Cason Callaway (1872-1936) grew callas because a 1933 newspaper article described an al fresco tea she gave for the local garden club as follows:
The guests were later invited to the house where the rooms were beautiful in their decorations of vari-colored flowers, all grown in the hostess’ gardens. The dining table held as a centerpiece a large bowl of Calla Lilies, Iris, Plumbago, Lemon Lilies, Peonies, and Roses. Attractive arrangements of Calla Lilies were used in the library and the drawing room was decorated with bowls of pink Roses.
We don’t know when Ida started growing calla lilies, but her daughter-in-law Alice obviously loved this striking plant too, and continued to cultivate them in the greenhouse her entire life. She even said that no more tubers of this variety were purchased after Ida Cason Callaway’s original acquisition, meaning that the rhizomes have been continuously divided each year as needed to provide for the next crop. Thus, the flowers that are produced now have their origins in Ida’s calla lilies. Sometime along the way, Alice began taking a bunch of long stemmed callas to First Baptist Church on the Square for display every Easter Sunday, a tradition that continues to this day.
So what is a calla lily? Though technically not truly a lily, for simplicity’s sake they’re being referred to as such in this article. Botanically, the quintessential tall white ones grown here are known as Zantedeschia aethiopica (zan-teh-DAY-she-uh). They are native to eastern and southern Africa and usually grow near streams and ponds as they like wet, rich soils. In its native habitat the large arrow shaped leaves grow quite large and stems up to six feet tall support the elegant white flowers, a height unheard of in cultivation. The flower, or inflorescence, is composed of a central spadix (usually yellow) which is surrounded by a larger modified funnel-shaped leaf called a spathe. The plant genus was named for the Italian botanist and physician Giovanni Zantedeshchi (1773-1846) and botanists have named about six or seven species.
In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in calla lilies and numerous cultivars are now available in colors of practically every shade except blue, with yellows and reds being particularly popular. Dwarf varieties are also commonly seen in greenhouses and nurseries for those who prefer a more petite version. In addition, gardeners frequently seek out cultivars such as ‘Hercules’, ‘White Giant’ and ‘Picasso’ which have speckled foliage like the old variety grown by Sarah Ferrell.
Callas can be grown as a garden perennial in moist soils throughout zones 7b-10 (LaGrange is now 8a). They are normally available in summer bulb catalogs and are usually planted after the last frost, as soils are warming. At Hills and Dales they perform best outdoors exactly as in their native clime along our stream and around the ponds. In colder climates callas can be lifted in fall, stored in peat moss and kept above freezing for the winter and then replanted when appropriate. You can also grow them as house plants provided you keep the soil moist and give them bright light. Long stemmed white callas are one of the estate’s signature plants and are still grown in the Callaway greenhouse in the traditional manner as a cut flower. We recently asked our Greenhouse Horticulturist, Joanna Lee, a variety of questions about how they are cultivated:
Q: When do you start growing Calla Lilies?
We usually plant them during the first few weeks of September. We save the strongest tubers year after year and plant them in the greenhouse in a bench filled with fresh compost that we make here at the estate. Prior to planting we soak them for about 10 minutes in a mixture of Green-Shield, neem oil and Murphy Oil Soap to deter insects and prevent rot. We plant them about 4-5 inches deep with the eyes up. If you have a hard time telling top from bottom you can plant them sideways and they will do just fine.
Q: What about watering and fertilizing?
They are heavy feeders so they appreciate the nutrient- rich compost. Once we plant them, we water regularly to keep the soil nice and moist all the way through April or early May. We mix slow release Osmocote into our compost mix prior to planting. We also fertilize with a liquid fertilizer, 20-20-20, about twice per month and sometimes give them a little extra triple superphosphate about once every two months which encourages extra blooms.
Q: When do the first blooms appear?
The foliage will start to appear about two weeks after we start watering in September. We usually see our first blooms during December and by February and March we have numerous blooms on long stems.
Q: How long do they continue to bloom?
For us, the callas continue to bloom through Easter. As it starts getting warmer at the end of April or early May, we completely stop watering and all the foliage dies down. Once we stop watering, that signals the end of another successful calla season.
Q: What do you do with the Calla tubers at the end of the year?
After we stop watering we just leave the tubers in the dry compost until early September. Usually the day after Labor Day we dig up the tubers and soak them in the mixture mentioned above, replace all the old compost with a fresh batch and then start the cycle again. We only plant the larger tubers since they will provide larger, more robust plants.
Q: What’s the most challenging thing about growing Callas?
Late in the spring the foliage starts to get out of hand, so you really need some extra support to help hold the foliage upright. Sometimes the leaves have to be cut back to allow room for the flowers to bloom. Also, when I use the flowers in arrangements they seem to constantly move. You set the flowers in the arrangement just the way you want them and when you come back the next day the flowers have moved, so you have to re-arrange. One nice thing about them is that they have a long vase life.
So, if we’ve piqued your interest and you feel you have just the right spot to plant this treasure, our history shows that you’d be in great company! Without a doubt, the elegant blooms and luxuriant foliage of calla lilies are real show stoppers and would make a great addition to your décor both indoors and out.