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South African Spring: Arum Lilies, Everywhere


South African Spring: Arum Lilies, Everywhere

August 28, 2023

South Africa’s native arum lilies are known as calla lilies in the United States, where they are an expensive cut flower and a garden ornamental. But in their homeland, in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter and spring, it is possible to wallow in them, for free. In late August, at the end of an exceptionally wet Cape Town winter, the wallowing is literal: Mud and water are not in short supply.

And arum lilies are everywhere.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Zantedeschia aethiopica—the common arum lily.

This September, the city is five years out from its history-making drought. Day Zero—a doomsday-like countdown to the end of Cape Town’s water supply—loomed. Now, as cold fronts from the southern Atlantic arrive in sheets of rain and wind at the southern tip of Africa, water is abundant. Growing in, or near, seasonal streams and marshes, are arum lilies, like flocks of long-necked white water birds visiting the wetlands that burgeon as the rain of months accumulates before seeping into the sated Table Mountain Group aquifer, or running out to sea.

Above: Arums growing in a greenbelt in the Cape Town suburb of Newlands.

The common white arum is Zantedeschia aethiopica, one of eight Zantedeschia species. In South Africa it is not confined to winter rainfall regions like the Western Cape Province (where it can grow in abundance) but adapts also to colder, drier climates, as long as plentiful summer rain feeds the plants after they break winter dormancy.

Above: Arum lilies nestle under invasive poplar trees in a marshy greenbelt in Constantia, Cape Town.

For American gardeners interested in growing them, arums (callas, if you prefer) are hardy to USDA zone 8, at least. In Southern California, and especially in New Zealand and Western Australia (where they were banned for sale in 2006), they have become invasive.

Above: In the wet winters of the Western Cape Province arum colonies remain evergreen.

Spring in South Africa is usually associated with the magical, ephemeral eruption of wildflower carpets along the summer-dry West Coast and semi-desert hinterland of the Northern Cape Province. But it’s worth noticing and appreciating the sumptuous presence of ubiquitous arums before their natural wetland habitats are lost to development and to agriculture in their native range.

Above: Peak flowering season is late winter and spring, but flowers can be produced all year.

Cooked young arum leaves, stems, and tubers were a traditional food in parts of South Africa. Wild colonies (as well as garden-grown arums) are relished by porcupines, who skip the cooking part and devour the tubers raw. Raw, the plant can be mildly toxic to humans (as I can attest: On a teenage dare, I ate an entire yellow spadix of an arum lily. My tongue reacted by swelling up. The cause? Raphides: The needle-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate. I survived).

Above: Wild arum lilies are often collected by informal flower sellers and hawked at roadsides in and near Cape Town.
Above: Tiny yellow arum frogs sometimes shelter inside the white spathes of the flower; spotting one is lucky, and rare.
Above: The white, petal-like spathe is wrapped around the yellow (reproductive) spadix.
Above: An arum bud, elegantly graceful.
Above: Spring in Cape Town is still wood stove-weather.

While white arums are often included in bridal bouquets globally, in South Africa they are still associated with death and with funerals, and some homes consider it inauspicious to bring them indoors.

But we’re not superstitious, are we (touch wood!)?

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Frequently asked questions

What are Arum Lilies?

Arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) are beautiful flowering plants native to South Africa. They are known for their large, glossy, arrow-shaped leaves and elegant white flowers.

Are Arum Lilies only found in South Africa?

While Arum Lilies are native to South Africa, they can also be found in other parts of the world, including Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. They are widely cultivated as ornamental plants in many regions.

How do Arum Lilies grow?

Arum Lilies grow from tubers and prefer moist, well-draining soil. They thrive in full sun to partial shade and can tolerate both cool and warm climates. With proper care, they can reach a height of up to 2-3 feet.

When do Arum Lilies bloom?

Arum Lilies usually bloom in late spring to early summer, producing long-lasting white flowers. The flowering period can vary depending on the region and growing conditions.

How do I care for Arum Lilies?

To care for Arum Lilies, provide them with regular watering to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. They benefit from a layer of mulch to conserve moisture. Remove wilted blooms and yellowing foliage to maintain a neat appearance. In colder climates, protect the tubers from frost by providing a layer of mulch or bringing them indoors for winter.

Can Arum Lilies be grown in pots?

Yes, Arum Lilies can be grown in pots or containers. Choose a pot with good drainage and use a well-draining potting mix. When grown in pots, they may need more frequent watering as the soil tends to dry out faster.

Are Arum Lilies toxic to pets?

Yes, Arum Lilies are toxic to pets, especially if ingested. The plant contains calcium oxalate crystals, which can cause irritation and swelling in the mouth, tongue, and throat. It's important to keep pets away from these plants and seek veterinary attention if accidental ingestion occurs.

Can Arum Lilies be propagated?

Yes, Arum Lilies can be propagated through division or by planting the tubers. Divide the clumps of tubers during the dormant season, ensuring that each division has viable roots. Plant the divisions in well-prepared soil and water thoroughly. The tubers can also be planted directly in the ground during the appropriate planting time.

Do Arum Lilies attract wildlife?

Arum Lilies are known to attract various pollinators, including bees and butterflies, with their fragrant flowers. However, the plant can also be invasive in certain regions, competing with native vegetation.

Where can I buy Arum Lilies?

Arum Lilies can be purchased from local nurseries, garden centers, or online plant retailers. They are popular ornamental plants, so they are often readily available for purchase.

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