Zantedeschia aethiopica:
a fascinating plant from an interesting family

The naming of
Zantedeschia aethiopica

The Calla lily as it is known in Europe, was brought from Africa a very long time ago, even before the settlement of South Africa by Europeans started in Table Bay with Jan van Riebeeck. It was already found in the Royal garden in Paris in 1664, and may have been sent to France by Simon van der Stel, one of the Dutch governors at the Cape, who sent a number of interesting South African plants to Europe.

Zantedeschia aethiopica, as with most of our plants, was given its scientific name in Europe. After a series of earlier names, this genus name was probably named in homage to Prof Giovanni Zantedeschi, an Italian botanist and doctor, who died in 1846. The species name aethiopica was given by a German botanist, Carl Ludwig Sprenger, a character with an unusually interesting biography. He was born in the year of Zantedeschi's death, and died in 1917 in Corfu, after spending a large part of his life cultivating rare plants in Naples. The name aethiopica is a very generalized descriptor of origin given to some of the earlier South African plants to reach Europe. It can be translated as “coming from an area somewhere down there in Africa, south of the boundaries of the the known world in classical times”, which southern border was Egypt. The naming harks back to an era still then seen as the pinnacle of civilization, classic Greece. In the cognition of classic Greece, everything south of Egypt was bundled with Ethiopia. Yet this name was given, probably, in the late 19th or early 20th Century. It is a very non specific not very descriptive name for a species name, boasting of ancient Greek ignorance in parallel with pretending to ancient Greek learning, shrouding an anonymous locality in veil of aesthetic or scientific 'classical' posturing. I feel this anonymity of the name strongly, coming from the place where the lilies have bloomed for a million years. There is not even a nod to history and thinking outside of Europe in that name Zantedeschia aethiopica, nor to the plant's specific appearance, or fascinating peculiarities.

As with many plants in the then colonies, English common names for our plants are taken from known plants in Europe. The English name so common in South Africa, arum lily, and in England and America the Calla lily, was shifted over from known and similar appearing plants in those regions of the world. Botanically they are both misnomers. Zantedeschia aethiopica is neither an arum of the genus Arum, found in the Mediterranean, nor a lily of the genus Lilium, nor is it a Calla. I will return to these other plants at the end of the article for those who are interested. In Europe it is also known as Lily-Of-The-Nile, White Arum Lily, White Arum, Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Florists Calla, Egyptian Lily, Garden Calla and Trumpet Lily.

Naming in local languages

Local names for Zantedeschia aethiopica include: Pig Lily, Varkblom, Varklelie, Varkiesblom, Varkiesblaar, Varkwortel or Varkblaar. All the references to pigs, or vark in Afrikaans, may be due to Zantedeschia ethiopica being the food of wild pigs. But it is so long since there were wild pigs in this region, the actual observation of this happening must have been centuries ago, probably by the hunters that eliminated them. The name ystervarkwortel comes the closest in describing this ecological relationship with root eating animals. It means porcupine root. Porcupines are still common in the Cape metropole.

The Afrikaans term varkoor or witvarkoor can be translated as white pig's ear, and is probably based on the shape of the white spathe surrounding the flower stalk, rather than on it being food for wild pigs.

Our flower names show an earthy unrarified idiom, as you can see in my other articles on the design motifs which touch on flower naming for Gladiolus carinatus, as an example. The Afrikaans name Aronskelk comes the closest to symbolism of a more classic poetic type. It translates as Aaron's chalice. We have no Greek sprites tripping through forest glades and mating with Gods in our Afrikaans botanical nomenclature, nor do we have Italian botanist doctors who collect lilies. Here too naming is based on the known and appreciated world.

The early settlers apparently did not appreciate indigenous culture except in a form most useful to themselves, food, hunting and medicine. Unlike the naming in Europe, the people, and the mythology remain hidden or absent from the naming process, We had enough of our own indigenous botanist doctors, and indigenous supernatural beings to name an army of lilies with unique names, but the Dutch settlers didn't know this wonderful, rich, local story. The naming process is very much a symptom of historical context, and I cannot point fingers, as I'm a part of our history too, but I think one should attempt to describe the hidden processes nonetheless.

The Afrikaans names Hottentotsblare and Hottentotsbrood may refer to its indigenous use as a medicinal poultice and as food. The indigenous people of the Cape were called Hottentots by the Dutch, and the name has persisted for centuries. Blare are leaves and brood is bread in Afrikaans. The early Dutch settlers learned much of their herbalism from the indigenous people and the Afrikaans names for plants often give an indication of their ancient use.

Local indigenous language names I could trace are intebe in isiXhosa, ihlukwe in isiZulu, mothebe in Southern Sotho, Umfana-kamacejane in siSwati and Mhala-Litoe in Sesotho. Not being a speaker, I must delve into dictionaries to find out more about these  indigenous names. This is a difficult task. The living spoken indigenous terms for plants are seldom found on paper, and even less online. I don't hold out much hope for interpreting the other meanings of intebe (isiXhosa) ihlukwe (isiZulu) without going out on a limb.

All I could find online was that in Kinyarwanda, spoken in Rwanda, a language in the same (Bantu) family as isiXhosa and isiZulu, the word intebe means stool, chair or bench. This is intriguing. Zantedeschia aethiopica does not occur naturally in Rwanda. But the people speaking Bantu languages have moved far and fast in recent historical times, leading to a similarity in some languages as far apart as Malawi and Kwazulu-Natal. Then again, in the isiXhosa online dictionary, the term was translated as “cup”. I think we have a hit !

In the isiZulu dictionaries, ihlukwe is translated as 'being divided'. Perhaps it refers to the form in which the spathe closes over itself, or over the seeds, or the rhizome form. The rhizome is used a lot in indigenous medicine. The dividing may refer to a therapeutic function, or to some other symbolic function in Zulu culture with which the plant is associated. We would need help from a native speaker, and especially a herbalist, to flesh this out. I will delve more into the medicinal properties and chemistry later in the article.

In the South Sotho dictionary, a mothebe is a sheriff. However the grammar particle shifts between languages may account for a shift from intebe to mothebe. I am not familiar enough with these. The SiSwati dictionary online translated only from English into SiSwati and was not helpful with the Siswati flower name.

Mohalalitoe is the Sesotho name for the flower. Mhala translates as 'free', litoe as 'rats'. This likely has nothing to do with the plant naming. Mohalalitoe is the brand name of a natural soap made by a couple, Setlhare and ’Marethabile Jane, in Maseru. They mention in their product description that the naming is based on a legend that the 'spotted Calla lily' Zantedeschia albomaculata is the only plant beloved of all the Basotho, like their gentle natural soap named after it. There must be more legend behind this flower being so loved, and a rich story to add to our local flower iconography.

According my advisor on Sesotho sa Lesotho and herbalism, Rosa Mpasha, the plant is used to remedy infertility in women, which could be a clue to this. I would love to delve deeper but taking the next step is beyond my research capabilities at the present time.

Other cultural symbolism

As with the naming, which is another kind of symbolism, the poetic symbolism of the flower to Europeans is grafted onto the symbolism of the Arum genus in classic Greece.

Many online florists around the world conflate the two plant groups, giving the African flower Zantedeschia the European symbolism of the Arum. This leads them to pronouncing that Zantedeschia aethiopica itself is associated with a Greek goddess. One can make anything represent anything, symbolism is supposed to be free, but there is something absurd here, as the flower was only brought to Europe in the 17th Century. Instead of grafting European symbolism onto the plant as part of their sales discourse, they could find out what it means in Africa.

Be that as it may, for florists online, this African flower Zantedeschia aethiopica is associated with the Hera and Venus story. Zeus brought one of his children from another woman to suckle at Hera's breast while she was sleeping. She flung the child away and her milk sprayed across the earth, the drops turning into flowers, so beautiful that even Venus was jealous of them and cursed them by placing the supposedly ugly finger like spadix in their center. They are thus associated with phenomenal beauty, and earthly desire.

This is not the only association with sexuality, and both Freud and the artist Georgia O'Keefe expressed it in different media, in which the finger like spadix took on other significance.

The flowers have also been depicted in annunciation scenes with the Virgin Mary, and have thus become associated with beauty, faithfulness, purity and resurrection, reemerging every year after winter. They are often used for bridal bouquets, because of their connotations of purity, and the sub text of desire perhaps is not generally spoken about.

Locally there is a whiff of superstition among the older generation around their use at weddings. It is said that its bad luck to use the plant in bridal bouquets, as it is a 'funeral' flower. This comes from my mother who grew up on a farm in the Karoo. On the other hand it is reputed to help women with fertility problems in indigenous medicine, which should make the bride and groom happy.

Having been exported so early and becoming naturalized in so many places, and of course, due to its striking appearance, 'our lily' has become a symbol to others. It is was used to commemorate the Easter 1916 dead and has become a symbol in Irish republicanism and nationalism. It is also the national flower of St Helena.

Zantedescia aethiopica's description

Zantedeschia aethiopica's large clumps of dark green leaves shaped like arrow heads can grow up to a meter in height depending on the sunlight received. They are taller in semi-shade. The smooth edged leaves are somewhat floppy when older, as much as 40cm long and 25cm wide, with a succulent central vein that extends down into a fat succulent stalk emerging from the rhizome in the ground.

The main flowering season is August to January, or our spring and high summer. The flowers are born on a long stem that can be up to 1.2 meters tall. What we see as the flower is actually a composite of hundreds of tiny flowers arranged in a complex spiral pattern on a finger like spike or spadix, surrounded by a white shielding bract or spathe. The spike of flowers produces a delicate fragrance and becomes bright yellow as the flowers mature, due to pollen shedding. The male flowers are borne on the top, and the female on the bottom third of the spadix, where the fruit will form.

Natural habitat of
Zantedeschia aethiopca

The plants can form large colonies under the right conditions, giving lovely spring displays of tall white 'cups' against the lush deep green of damp areas. The can grow from the coast up to over 2000 meters above sea level, and can cope with salt laden sea air, and freezing mountain altitudes. This has doubtless led to their widespread naturalization in many climates. In the wild they grows in both sun and shade.

The original home of the  Zantedeschias, including the six other species, is the African continent. Zantedeschia aethiopica is found from seaside to mountain ranges, all along the wet coasts of South Africa from the Cape up to Mozambique. In the winter rainfall Western Cape it is dormant in summer, and in the summer rainfall eastern regions it is dormant in winter. In marshy areas it is evergreen.

It has become naturalized in a number of East African countries, in coastal California and in Australia and New Zealand where it is classified as an invasive toxic weed and may not be cultivated, sold or distributed.

Ecology of
Zantedeschia aethiopica

Zantedeschia aethiopica is monoecious, having separate male and female flowers on the same plant. They are borne on the same finger like spadix. Cross pollination is ensured by the delayed maturation of the male flower parts producing pollen. The faintly scented flowers first attract bees and crawling insects to fertilize the ripening female plants. To reward them small structures called staminodes, which are delicious and sweet eating for insects, sprout between the stigmas. A specially adapted white Thomisid spider hides in the spathe, camouflaged by its whiteness, waiting for the insects. At the Cape a tiny frog, Hyperolius hopstocki, also uses the perfume's lure to hunt.

The Calla lily is host to the Hummingbird Hawk-moth or Macroglossum stellatarum caterpillars in its natural habitat. You can see one of these hiding in the shadows in my drawing.

Uniquely to this species in the genus, as the fruit ripen, the base of the spathe turns green and folds over the fruit, protecting them, while the apex withers away. The species is also unique in that the berries turn orange, soft and mucilaginous on ripening. Eventually when they are ripe, the covering rots away, to reveal the berries to foraging birds which disperse the seeds.

The tubers are eaten by porcupines and wild pigs.

The medicinal use of the plant

In areas where the plant grows naturally or is naturalized, it has been both a food source and an important medicinal plant. However this comes with danger, it must be cooked. Without the right treatment it is highly poisonous, and is responsible for 6.5% of poisoning cases at a large South African hospital. It contains two poisons, one of these is calcium oxalate which forms needle sharp raphide crystals that irritate the digestive tract. This can cause swelling of the lips tongue and throat, and stomach pain and diarrhea.

These symptoms are dangerous and unpleasant, but even more so are the cardiac glucosides which can cause paralysis of the central nervous system, according to local research conducted on the plant.

Nonetheless, the underground parts are sold as medicines locally. Its traditional medicinal uses are mainly as a poultice and treatment for headaches. It is used against inflammatory problems and infections like boils, burns, gout, insect bites, rheumatism, sores, wounds and bladder infections. It is also known for treating female fertility issues, tumors of the womb, frequent miscarriage, mental illness and tuberculosis.

Its phytochemistry includes antibacterial, antifungal antioxidant, antihistaminic, antialgal, antithrombotic, and anticoagulant components with the active ingredients being terpenoids and sterols amongst others.

Horticulture and cultivation

The long stem of the arum lily make it a very suitable cut flower and it lasts a long time in the vase, so it is much in demand globally for funeral arrangements and weddings. A number of varieties have been bred with different coloring, such as pink spathes, or with spotted leaves. But attaining the full color spectrum of dwarf varieties by crossing between different Zantedeschia species was not successful.

There are also varieties better suited to different climates, like the cold tolerant 'Crowborough' grown in Ireland. It is grown commercially in several countries, but the flowers sold locally, on the street, are picked in the wild.

Zantedeschia aethiopica is easily grown from seed, extracted from the fruit, dried and sowed in spring in a clean seedling mix, lightly covered.

The root-stock is best divided during the dormant season. Plant the sections 5 cm deep.

The plant needs rich soil, and a lot of water, and grows best where there is a water body nearby. It can grow in sun or shade, but flowers better in the sun. It will also flower better if it is given plenty of water and compost in summer. Do not pull out dead leaves, cut them off.

The relationship to other plant groups

The Genera Zantedeschia, Calla and Arum

In the Genus Zantedeschia there are seven other species. They are all native to southern Africa, reaching up to Malawi. They have been introduced to all continents bar Antartica. Z. elliottiana and Z. rehmannii, are those more commonly called Calla lilies, but are not true Callas.

The nearest relatives of Zantedeschia aethiopica, that involve the naming confusion, are very interesting with some unusual characteristics.

The genus Calla contains one species Calla palustris, an aquatic plant, which is much smaller, has rounder leaves and a flatter, less cup like spathe compared to Zantedeschia aethiopica. To confuse matters the naming shows a lot of overlap. It is also known as the arum lily, bog arum, marsh calla, squaw claw, water arum or wild calla. It is native to the northern hemisphere, and found in cool subarctic regions in muddy areas or along streams. It is highly poisonous, but its roots can also be eaten after lengthy processing.

The genus Arum has 32 species. The Greek name for the plant was Aron. Like Zantedeschia aethiopica and the true Calla, they are also commonly known as arum lilies. It is believed the name is derived from the arabic root ar for fire, because of the burning sap of some plants.

Like Zantedeschia aethiopica, they all have inflorescences in the form of spathe and spadix. The more showy varieties are lovely plants for a shaded garden. Arum maculatum or lords-and-ladies is the best known. It is not frost hardy.

The genus Arum is native to Europe, northern Africa and western and central Asia, with the highest diversity in the Mediterranean. It is slightly smaller than Zantedeschi aethiopica, at 20-60cm tall, with arrow shaped leaves 10-55cm long. The spadix and spathe have similar functions to those in Zantedeschia aethipica, but this genus has insect traps, or small hairs above the male flowers, which keep insects from escaping until pollen has been released. Quite often it is as the insects crawl up the spadix to escape that they become covered in pollen.

The spadix heats up to well above ambient temperature by thermogenesis, using the rapid consumption of starch in cyanide intensive respiration, a different pathway to normal plant respiration. This heat helps spread odors. In the shorter species of arum it is a fecal smell that attracts small insects that are then caught in the insect trap. Many small insects die in the flower as pollination can take several days, but it is not a carnivorous plant. As with Zantedeschia aethiopica, the flower starts to wither away after fertilization of the ovaries has occurred. 

There are two main types of arum pollination. The “cryptic” species have short flower stalks and give off a fecal odor detectable to humans. Only cryptic species are found in norther Europe. The “flag” species have a long stalk, and also show thermogenesis, but there is no detectable odour and the pollination mechanism is debated still. Exceptions to this typology are the long stalked lemon scented A. creticum, and the short odorless A. idaeum.

The family Araceae
and subfamily Aroideae

Arums, Zantedeschia, and Callas belong in the family Araceae, in the subfamily Aroideae. All members of these groups have an inflorescence with a spadix, sometimes with spathe. The family Araceae includes 114 genera and 3750 known species, and is most diverse in the New World tropics. One of the largest collections of Araceae is at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Collectors may call them Aroids. There is some writing by the International Aroid Society describing Aroid pollination that reads better than fiction if you're a plant lover.

Araceae often have rhizomes or tubers and often contain calcium oxalate or raphide crystals. The leaf forms are varied. Most plants have separate male and female flowers borne on the spadix with female flowers towards the bottom. The male flowers generally mature much later to prevent self fertilization. As such our Zantedeschia aethiopica is typical.

Many Araceae are thermogenic, reaching up to 45 degrees C. This attracts insects and prevents tissue damage in cold regions. I am not sure if Zantedeschia aethiopica is also thermogenic. There is no litereture I can access to confirm it. But this would explain its wide climate tolerance. Examples of known thermogenetic plants in the rest of the world are the eastern skunk cabbage, titan arum, elephant foot yam, dead horse arum lily and voodoo lily. Some of them give off the smell of rotting flesh to attract pollinators.

Aroideae is the largest subfamily in the family. It has 72 Genera, which include Arum, Caladium, Calla, Colocasia, Dieffenbachia, Philodendron, Xanthosoma and Zantedeschia. As so often happens in plant families, they share chemical properties. Many of them, such as Colocasia, or taro, can have high levels of calcium oxalate, with raphide crystals, and many of them have spiny pollen grains.

The classification of the Araceae was assayed by Theophrastus in classical times, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu in the 18th century, Heinrich Wilhelm Schott and Adolf Engler in the 19th and 20th Centuries, till the advent of modern phylogenetics reorganized them again. The family Araceae includes the largest unbranched inflorescence, the titan arum, and the smalles flowering plant and fruit, duckweed.

Food plants in the family include Amorphophallus paeoniifolius, the elephant foot yam, Colocasia esculenta or taro, Xanthosoma or cocoyam, Typhonium trilobatum and Monstera deliciosa or Mexican breadfruit. All of these are seldom given the attention of crop breeders, but are widely grown and very important in subsistence agriculture. All in all it is a fascinating group of plants.


Expertise on Sesotho sa Lesotho: Rosa Mpasha, M.A. Stellenbosch

L.S. Khose, A. Moteetee and S. Van Vuuren, 2015. Ethnobotanical Survey of Medicinal Plants used in the Maseru District of Lesotho. In the Journal of Ethnopharmacology 170, 184-200.

A. MAROYI, 2019. Zantedeschia aethipica (L.) Spreng. : A Review of its Medicinal Uses, Phytochemistry and Biological Activities. In the Asian Journal of Pharmaceutical and Clinical Research.

Y. Sing, A.E. Van Wyk and H. Bajnath, 1996. The Floral Biology of Zantedeschia aethiopica (L.) Spreng. (Araceae). In the South African Journal of Botany, Volume 62, Issue 3. . ,

Wikipedia: Zantedeschia, Araceae, Aroideae, Calla species, Arum

South African National Botanical Institute online.

Encyclopedia Britannica online



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