"To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."
- William Shakespeare, King John Act IV, Scene 2
Calla lillies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) are grown from rhizomes and bloom late in the spring. Callas are native to South Africa, where they thrive in the humidity of places like Madagascar, often blooming throughout winter. Its African origins probably account for one of calla lily’s common names, Varkoor, which means pig’s ear in Afrikaans. Other common names for this magnificent plant are arum lily, trumpet lily and pig lily.
The calla lily is not a true lily at all. Typically, this misnomer was the fault of Carolus Linneaus, who, in the mid 18th century messed up a lot of botanical stuff in his attempt to classify everything that moved. Linnaeus called it Calla aethiopica. It wasn’t until 1826 when it was placed in a genus of its own: Zantedeschia.
Like many ancient flowers, lilies carry a lot of symbolic baggage. The ancient Greek myth held that the lily grew from Hera’s (Roman: Juno) milk, which was spilled when she was nursing Heracles (Roman: Hercules). The Romans associated the calla lily with lust and sexuality because of the phallic flower stalk and the yellow pistil. Strangely, despite its decidedly male shape, the pistil is the female sexual organ of the plant.
Before the Victorians invented the Language of Flowers based mostly on appearance, the symbolic meaning of the lily had been overtaken by the hegemony of Christian iconography. Christian myth has it that lilies used to be yellow. When picked by the Virgin, they became white. It’s also said that the lily grew where Eve’s tears fell when she was expelled from Paradise, but that myth might just be the first recorded instance of seasonal allergies.
In Roman times, lilies were associated with death and symbolized sympathy. Now days despite (or perhaps because of?) its toxicity, calla lily is associated with marriage. It contains calcium oxalic crystals that can be toxic if ingested.
Lilies are associated with the Virgin Mary, often painted in the hand of the Angel Gabriel when he announced that her pregnancy test was positive. Because of its associations with virginal purity and chastity, one of my favorite legends is associated with a test for virginity involving the lily. According to Ruth Binney, Natures’s Ways: lore, legend, fact and fiction:“Following witch lore, parents anxious that a daughter might have lost her virginity would feed her powdered yellow lily. If still a virgin she would at once experience the urge to urinate”.
It’s a mystery to me what the urge to pee has to do with virginity, but I do love the evolution of meanings assigned to flowers. I particularly like the “Green Goddess” variety that grows in the bog end of my pond. The green stains look just like the knees of pants worn by a gardener who should have known better than to wear white pants while gardening. Then again, it might just be that I'm rebelling from the whole virginal purity thing and I prefer this variety in my garden because the Green Goddess is stained.
The botanic illustration at the top of this post is from Fragmenta botanica, figuris coloratis illustrata : ab anno 1800 ad annum 1809 per sex fasciculos edita / opera et sumptibus Nicolai Josephi Jacquin.