Calla lilies have a reputation as a cut flower, specifically as a part of bridal bouquets, but they can also make a beautiful perennial border in your flower garden. The best part is that these flowers grow from rhizomes that will spread and fill in over time.
Give them ideal growing conditions, and they will reward you with more flowers year after year. You can even dig up and divide rhizomes to spread them to other areas of your garden.
These plants are frost-sensitive and can only survive in the ground as perennials in USDA growing zones 8-10. In cooler climates, you can either grow them in containers and bring them indoors in the winter or dig up the rhizomes and store them indoors to replant in the spring. Either way, these flowers are versatile and beautiful.
What Are Calla Lillies?
Despite their common name, calla lily, these plants are not true lilies. But just like true lilies, they are considered to be poisonous to humans and pets alike. For this reason, plant them in an inaccessible area to small children and pets. Despite that, these trumpet-shaped blooms offer simple elegance to the cut flower garden. And they’re easy to care for as well!
These lilies gained popularity in Europe and North America in the late 1800s.
Calla lilies were brought from South Africa to Europe and North America. Though it is unclear how they made their way across continents, by the late 1800s, they had become a popular flower.
The calla lily has become associated with many symbols, including purity, beauty, rebirth, and union. For this reason, they are quite popular in wedding bouquets. And this flower is also the official bloom representing the sixth wedding anniversary.
The word calla is derived from the Greek word for beauty, kallos. In Greek mythology, Zeus brought baby Hercules to his sleeping wife, Hera, to nurse. Hera awoke and pushed the baby away, causing drops of milk to fly across the sky and form the Milky Way. Everywhere that the drops fell to the earth, the lilies bloomed. In another version of the story, the flowers are said to have sprung up from the ground where Hera’s tears fell to the earth.
The flowers are native to South Africa and may become invasive in riparian areas.
Calla lilies are native to South Africa, thriving in coastal prairies and wetlands. For this reason, they can be invasive in riparian areas. In the wild, they can also be found in slightly acidic wetlands and bogs or wet ditches alongside roads. They can thrive unassisted in humid and moist conditions and will come back and spread year after year in areas that don’t receive a hard freeze.
In their native range, when temperatures drop below 50 degrees, the rhizomes will enter a state of dormancy. They will cease blooming until temperatures warm up again in the spring. The rhizomes can’t survive in areas where the ground freezes throughout the winter.
These plants are cherished for their long vase life and elegant single blooms.
These lilies have a unique chalice-like shape. In Afrikaans, this plant is called Varkoor, which means pig’s ear and refers to the flower shape. While the most popular and widely recognizable color is white, they also can be found in colors such as pink, yellow, orange, purple, navy blue, and maroon.
They have long arrow-shaped green leaves that can be solid or speckled. Each flower stem supports a single trumpet-like bloom. They are known for their long vase life. This, in combination with the thick stems and beautiful single blooms, makes them a popular cut flower.
The sturdy flowers are ideal for cut flower gardens, especially for bridal bouquets and arrangements.
These plants are exclusively grown as an ornamental. This flower is not edible and is considered to be poisonous. Ingesting any part of the calla lily plant can cause severe swelling of the throat, which can result in difficulty breathing.
As mentioned above, they have a long vase life, and flowers can last up to two weeks once cut from the main plant. This makes them a great addition to a cut flower garden. They make stunning bridal bouquets and flower arrangements.
Where To Buy Calla Lillies
They are widely available online, at big box stores, and local nurseries.
Due to their popularity, there are many places where you can find these lilies for sale. They can be found at online retailers and big box stores (especially during the spring).
Your local nursery is also a great place to find calla lily rhizomes. These lilies are popular during the Easter holiday and mature, already-flowering plants can be found around that time.
You can dig up and divide rhizomes from a fellow gardener or neighbor. Since these rhizomes tend to multiply and spread over time, if you know someone with an established calla lily patch, they may be willing to dig up and divide some of their rhizomes. The best time to do this is in the spring, just before new growth emerges.
Plant rhizomes in the spring in 65-degree soil temperatures, or start them indoors in colder climates.
Rhizomes should be planted in the spring when soil temperatures have warmed to at least 65 degrees. In areas with a short growing season, they can be started in pots indoors a month before the last frost date and then transplanted outdoors after all danger of frost has passed. This can also be done in warmer climates to encourage the plants to flower earlier in the season.
Dig a hole 3-4 inches deep, and be sure that the depth of the hole is at least two times the height of the rhizome. When placing the rhizome into the hole, ensure the eyes are facing upwards, then cover it with soil. Space your rhizomes 6 inches apart when planting directly in the ground to allow for room to spread. Container-planted rhizomes can be planted a bit closer at 4 inches apart. Once planted, water well so that the soil settles around the bulb.
How to Grow
Despite their high-maintenance appearance, they are easy to grow! They will thrive in your garden for years if their basic requirements are met.
They prefer full sun in temperate climates and partial afternoon shade in hot summer areas.
Calla lilies can be grown in full sun to partial shade conditions. Full sun conditions are best for more temperate climates.
In areas with hot summers or prolonged extreme heat (temperatures regularly exceeding 80 degrees Fahrenheit), they benefit from a break from the sun. For this reason, partial afternoon shade is beneficial in areas with hot summers.
Calla lilies thrive in moist conditions, requiring weekly watering during the growing season.
In their native habitat, these plants can be found near wetlands. This is because they do best in moist conditions. Keep soil evenly moist but not waterlogged. Overly wet soils can lead to rhizome rot and other fungal issues. It’s best to water once per week during the height of the growing season (spring through summer). If the weather is hot, consider watering more often.
Cut back on watering during the late fall and winter when the bulbs enter a state of dormancy. When the temperatures dip below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the above-ground foliage will die back, and the rhizomes will go dormant for the winter. If you live in a cold climate that receives freezes, this is the time to dig up and store your rhizomes to replant in the spring.
These lilies thrive in organically rich, well-drained, and slightly acidic soil.
Calla lilies prefer organically rich soils. This can be achieved by adding compost or other organic matter to your planting site. Adding compost will also help with moisture retention.
Although the soil should be moist, it should not be soaked or soggy, so be sure that you provide your calla lily with well-drained soil and avoid planting them at a low-lying area of your garden or an area where water pools (like near a downspout). They also require slightly acidic soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5.
Temperature and Humidity
They thrive in temperatures of 60-80°F with humid, moist conditions.
The ideal temperature during the active growing season is 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit. The combination of warm weather, consistent moisture, and mild humidity will produce happy and healthy plants with plenty of blooms. On the contrary, they will struggle in overly dry and drought conditions. They are not considered to be drought tolerant and need regular water to survive.
These plants are perennial in areas where the ground does not freeze in the winter. If you live in a growing zone that receives a hard freeze, you will need to dig up your calla lily rhizomes, store them indoors over the winter, and plant them out again in the spring, just like you would for Canna lilies.
Optional fertilization can be done with a phosphorus-rich liquid fertilizer in spring.
Fertilizing is optional. However, if you wish to encourage blooms or have previously had issues with your calla lily producing blooms, use a liquid fertilizer slightly higher in phosphorus. Follow the application directions on the packaging and apply in spring after new growth has appeared.
If you’d like to forgo synthetic fertilizer altogether, apply a fresh layer of compost in early spring. Fertilizing during the fall and winter is unnecessary and can damage your rhizomes as they require a rest period.
Regular deadheading promotes more blooms and extends the vase life of cut flowers.
Regular deadheading will encourage more blooms. They make beautiful cut flowers that can last up to 2 weeks in a vase, meaning that deadheading can do double duty and result in a beautiful homemade bouquet.
Cut flowers at the base of the main stem where it meets the foliage growth. Ideally, cut your flowers just before they have fully opened for the longest vase life. This will encourage your calla lily to continue to bloom throughout the summer.
Growing in Containers
Calla lilies thrive in containers, which is great in regions where they can’t grow as perennials.
Yes, calla lilies can be grown in containers. This can be ideal for areas where they can’t be grown as perennials outdoors. Then, you can easily bring your pots inside in winter and put them back outside in the spring.
When growing in containers, ensure the soil is well-draining. Most potting mixes are meant to hold onto moisture, which can harm your plants. You can add sand or perlite to increase the drainage of your potting soil mix. Always ensure your container has drainage holes so water does not pool at the bottom.
Divide rhizomes every three years for optimal growth and blooming.
You can grow them from seed, but it can take up to three years from seed to first bloom. For this reason, the preferred propagation method is by dividing already-existing rhizomes.
Calla lily rhizomes can also be dug up and divided in the spring before new growth emerges. Over the years, the rhizomes will spread and multiply. They can then be dug up and divided again every three years.
These plants are relatively low maintenance and trouble-free, but some issues can arise due to less-than-ideal conditions. Read on to learn about the signs and symptoms to be on the lookout for and how to manage and correct these issues.
Lack of Flowers
Insufficient sunlight and excess nitrogen are common reasons for a calla lily not blooming.
There are two main reasons that your calla lily may not be blooming. If it is planted in too much shade, the plants will not be able to obtain enough energy to produce blooms. The plants will also be stunted, indicating they are not receiving enough light. To correct this issue, wait for the spring, dig up the rhizomes, and replant them in an area with more sunlight.
Another cause of a lack of flowers is too much nitrogen, either naturally occurring in the soil or too much nitrogen added via a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer. If your calla lily has lush, full, bright green foliage and looks otherwise healthy, then too much nitrogen could be the issue. The addition of a fertilizer higher in phosphorus will encourage flowers.
Check the soil moisture to revive drooping calla lily flowers.
If your calla lily is flowering, but the flowers are drooping, this can be caused by either over or underwatering. To determine which issue you have at hand, push your finger at least two inches into the soil surrounding your lily. If the soil feels fully saturated and wet, you may be overwatering.
They like moist soil but not overly wet or waterlogged conditions. Back off watering and let the soil dry completely before you resume watering again. If the soil surrounding your calla lily is bone dry, you will need to increase the watering frequency.
Aphids on plants can be removed by using a strong hose blast.
Aphids are a common soft-bodied insect pest that can afflict many plants, including calla lilies. A strong blast from the hose can knock them off the plant, and this method is effective when caught early enough. However, neem oil or insecticidal soap can help remove aphids if an extreme outbreak occurs. Avoid spraying the flowers to limit exposure to pollinating insects and focus these sprays on the foliage.
Slugs prefer wet conditions and can hide under logs and rocks, amongst piles of leaf debris, and even in mulch. Slugs are land-dwelling mollusks, and they are mostly active at night. They feed on plant matter, and their damage is easily identifiable by the ragged holes they leave behind in the foliage. Slime trails are another indicator that slugs are the problem.
When slug populations are low, you can hand-pick them from your plants. For a more hands-off approach, you can use slug traps. Copper strip barriers may help deter slugs. Organic slug/snail baits will draw the slugs to the bait and away from your plants.
Bacterial soft rot causes wet, cream, or tan-colored rotted plant tissue.
Bacterial soft rot symptoms include rotted tissues that are wet, cream, or tan-colored and soft. Rot begins on the rhizome surface and progresses inward. As its name would suggest, this disease is caused by a bacteria that thrives in very wet soil conditions.
A preventative measure is providing well-draining soil to limit the ideal conditions for this bacteria to grow. Once bacterial soft rot has infected plant tissue, there is no treatment. Remove and dispose of infected plant material; do not compost it, as you risk spreading the bacteria around your garden.
Powdery mildew is a white powdery substance that attacks many plants in the garden. It can be identified by the pale, powdery coating that appears on the leaves, followed by yellowing foliage that eventually dies. Powdery mildew thrives in damp, cool conditions.
In the case of powdery mildew, preventative measures are key. Spacing plants further apart can help increase air flow, and air is the enemy of damp conditions. You’ll also want to avoid overhead watering by using drip irrigation or soaker hoses. Neem oil or a copper-based fungicide can be applied to knock down fungal infections if they are severe.
Limiting the amount of time your foliage spends wet will decrease the conditions needed for powdery mildew to thrive. If caught early, you can remove diseased foliage to prevent it from spreading further on the plant or to surrounding plants.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, they are perennial in USDA growing zones 8-10. They can be grown as an annual in cooler climates or dug up in the fall, stored indoors, and replanted in the spring.
They can be grown in both full sun and partial shade conditions.
They are ideal for planting in pots and do just as well as they would in the ground provided the container is big enough.
Yes, regular deadheading encourages the plants to focus their energy on producing more blooms rather than producing seed pods.
Calla lilies offer a stunning and elegant bloom in the garden with ease and low maintenance. This perennial will return year after year and continue to spread, too! They can be enjoyed in the garden and make a beautiful, long-lived cut flower you can bring into your home.