My Idea of A Great Houseplant


Zantedeschia aethiopica–or calla or arum lily–always figures prominently in my fantasy gardens.  For example, the garden below from House & Garden’s December issue:


The stone balustrade separating the garden from the mountain lake, the cupid sitting on a dolphin, and callas dominating the pool, well thanks, I wouldn’t mind at all.  Particularly right now.


Even more to my taste are those balmy gardens in foreign climes where the calla lilies are naturalized on some beautiful hillside leading down to the sea.  A native of South Africa, zantedeschia aethiopica is apparently such a robust grower, it’s considered a weed in some parts of the world.  (It’s really time for a stricter definition of the word "weed," one that excludes callas and embraces Black-Eyed Susans.)

Last winter, Lowe’s offered zantedeschia aethiopica tubers, variety unnamed, for $4 each.  I thought what the hey, bought three and stuck them in a pot.  They produced giant, gorgeous arrow-shaped leaves and promptly bloomed in the house, large, pristine, pitcher-shaped white blooms.  Not just a success.  For someone with my narrow horizons, an absolute dream.

Fish_out Then I took a clue from the Brent and Becky’s Bulbs catalog and, in the spring, sunk the pot into my little backyard fish pond–where the callas promptly took over the joint, growing too large for their container, producing an amazing mat of roots that attempted to crawl over the top, and keeling over irritatingly.  I repotted them in a bigger container in aquatic soil–where they did the same thing again.  Fortunately, I guess, winter threatened before they got the full Fish Out Of Water treatment, with me scrambling for bigger container after bigger container until finally I have to dump my charge into Peerless Pool in the state park.

Canna_dining Then I brought the pot of callas into the house and gave it my patented houseplant treatment: actionable neglect with an occasional muttering of imprecations.  Did I gently remove that amazing mass of roots from the sprinkling of rocky aquatic soil that was barely covering them into the nice, rich potting soil they deserved?  Reader, I did not.  I stuck the pot in a North-facing window and forgot about it.

What did zantedeschia aethiopica do?  Started blooming again.  I love this plant madly.  Despite its tropical look, the books all say that aethiopica, unlike other callas, can survive in rich, moist soil even in Zone 6.   I’ve got dry soil in Zone 5.  Time to try this baby in the ground.   


  1. tis a classic – not sure about the US but most UK available cultivars (with the hourable exception of crowborough which is lovely) are less nice than the original – why have mauvey-pink or putrid green when such a lovely white is available?

    No the species form is what is currently blooming in the enormous perenial oasis and watergarden concept I spend my time daydreaming about.

  2. Tai haku, I agree. None of other zantedeschias are nearly as interesting as aethiopica. It’s not just that the flower is somehow ruined by the color, their scale is smaller, too.

  3. I second queenie. I wanna try this. Not for the house plant part particularly, but the part about the pond. Did you have gold fish? I figure my gold fish will keep anything green in check.

  4. I live in the most perfect growing zone for this magnificent plant and have witnessed it as a wide spreading weed when it gets its greedy big feet rooted in a bog like area.
    Imagine my surprise when a client asked me to do some ‘tidying up ‘ at her Mendocino coastal property and when she opened the ranch gate I gazed across two solid acres of nothing but tall white calla lilies juxtaposed against the horizon of the crashing Pacific ocean beyond.

    I ‘tidied up’ alright, with about 5 or 6 dump truck loads of calla bulbs,… enough to plant at a couple dozen other clients gardens with and create ultimate job security.

  5. Michelle Derviss, what a hilarious story! Clearly, one woman’s weed is another woman’s dream. If I had two acres of coastal Mendicino property filled with callas…I don’t think I’d do much besides bask.

  6. Tibs, my goldfish–four of them five inches long–could not possibly dent this plant.

    But since I started it in the winter, it was good-sized by the time I sank it in the pond.

  7. Yeah, here in northern California they’re about the most beautiful weed you could imagine. I cleared out a long, skinny strip near my kitchen door and moved the biggest chunks to other areas of the garden, but every tiny little bit of root and bulb that was left has re-sprouted. It always amazes me to go to Manhattan and see them selling for $25 a stem. If I could get that for them here, I’d have a whole ‘nuther kind of cash crop.

  8. On the topic of Michelle Dervis’ story – when I lived in Hackney in London (one of the most deprived areas in the UK) I used to walk past dozens of gardens every day most of which were just paved over or weeded up and frankly horrible but there were 3 in a row that were planted only with Zandescanthia – a little old lady had let them take over and then let her neighbours take some too. Certainly made for a statement.

  9. Do I detect some slightly disingenuous self-criticism for maintaining a houseplant in such a rank state? Well, it’s beautiful. This plant speaks of fecundity and vigor. The remnant dead leaves at the bottom speak of exhaustion and dissolute living.

    I’m surprised; I never thought of it as a houseplant. This specimen, or one like it, would be remarkable in a dark, expensive pot on a low table in a room with high ceilings and dramatic-but-subtle lighting, especially in contrast to conservative, restrained decor. Well, that’s where my mind went when I saw it.

    Dry soil sounds like the death knell for calla–if there is such a thing for this plant. Cutting it to the ground and applying Round-Up to the freshly cut crown won’t kill it in my garden. Just makes it mad.

    I say plant it in the bog with your potatoes.

    And please, please tell me you would never plant something like this in a natural pond. Only in a man-made garden pond. Please.

    It’s weird to think people pay money for these plants. At least once a year I see a pile of them dug up from someone’s garden and left on the sidewalk with a “Free” sign.

  10. Chuck B., you read “exhaustion and dissolute living” into a mere failure to take care of one’s houseplants?

    I’m a gardener, not a babysitter. My interest in houseplants is an eighth of an inch deep. If they bloom or produce something edible, I’ll tolerate them.

    But if I’m being graded on them, that’s it–out they go to the back porch to freeze tonight!

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