Valley News – Add some spring to your summer with calla lilies

Valley News – Add some spring to your summer with calla lilies

If you’re coming home from work and want something to do, planting bulbs now for summer blooms may be just your ticket.

I recently got some calla lilies and sword lily roots from a Gardeners Supply store in Lebanon and planted them in pots. I called ahead and they brought it right to my car, but you can order it online.

Calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) come in different colors and sizes. The flowers are difficult to describe: they are often called trumpet-shaped, but they are not really that. Each is an asymmetrical trumpet called a spadix with a yellow space inside. Celery is a narrow, pointed bump made of small flowers. You saw a void if you looked inside Jack in the pulpit: it was Jack himself.

Grocery stores often sell pots of short calla lilies with long pink or white flowers. These beauties are not true lilies at all, but members of the arum family, which includes jack-in-the-pulpit, skunk cabbage, and the house plants dieffenbachia and philodendron.

Calla lilies are perennial in warm climates, but, like dahlias and tulips, they must be dug up and brought indoors before they winter here. They are relatively inexpensive. I paid $12.99 for three large rhizomes (a modified stem that looks like a bulb). Now is a good time to start some calla roots indoors.

The roots of the calla I planted were fuzzy at first. Unlike daffodils or tulips, there was no clear top or bottom. There is no pointed end to the climb. But I did a little research and found that the smooth, rounded side goes down and the knobby side (covered in little bumps and bumps) goes up. They should be planted 3 to 5 inches deep, giving one square foot of soil surface for three bulbs.

I planted three calla lily bulbs in an 11-inch pot, slightly crowded as recommended on the package. Others were planted singly in 6-inch pots. Either way, it’s important to have good, deep pots filled with a rich potting mix.

I saved a lot of last year’s soil at the end of the season, mixed it with equal amounts of cow manure and added a tablespoon of organic fertilizer. Later I will sometimes add some fish and seaweed fertilizer to the water I give my calla lilies.

Everything I’ve read indicates that calla lilies like rich soil and lots of moisture. This contradicts what I saw: In Portugal I saw wild calla lilies growing in dry places with poor soil, including next to railway lines. What is certain is that they do best with plenty of sunlight – six or more hours a day.

One of my favorite summer bulb plants goes by a variety of common names: peacock orchid, sword lily, or fragrant lily (although this plant is not an orchid, lily, or lily). That’s why I love Latin names. If you ask about acidanthera murielae, people with knowledge of plants around the world will know what you mean. But for now, I’ll refer to it as the sword lily.

The sword lily has long, narrow leaves — like swords — that are 18 inches or more in length. The flowers are white with deep purple markings in the center of the six-petaled flower, plus a bit of yellow in the middle. It gets two or three flowers per stem, and is attractively fragrant, especially in the evening.

Like calla lilies, sword lilies are tropical so we can grow them here, but they will not overwinter outside. But the corms (bulbs) will survive in a 60-degree place all winter, and you can replant them next year. I grew them in the ground, but I prefer them in pots because they are so fragrant. They’re great on deck.

According to the instructions, you can plant a dozen bulbs in a square foot of soil. So I planted a dozen in a 12-inch pot, each bulb 3 to 4 inches deep. You can plant them directly in the soil, of course, but I like to start them early for mid-summer blooms rather than fall blooms.

Other summer bulbs include gladiolus, crocosmia, ranunculus, and best of all, elephant ear. These are all delightful plants, each with its own requirements and benefits. They all need plenty of sun and brought indoors before winter.

And in Cameroon, West Africa, where I spent nearly four years as a young man in the Peace Corps, elephant ears were a staple food. There it was called cocoyam, and it was the corm or bulb that was boiled, peeled and served as a main dish with a hot sauce, and perhaps a little meat.

Elephant ear leaves can get huge — up to 2 or 3 feet long and a half wide. The leaves are also edible and are substituted for the Tupperware container which is not found in Cameroon. All you have to do is wrap your lunch in a leaf, tie it up, and go to the fields. It does not produce any noticeable flower.

Because of my long association with elephant ears, I often grow them. It likes full sun and moist, or at least moist, soil. I’ve grown it in the ground, but mostly in pots. I’ve had one all winter indoors. I cut them back in the fall and thought they might remain dormant, but they have been growing in the west-facing window, although the leaves are very small now. You can order and grow worms now. Each bulb can weigh a pound or more.

So, if you’re suffering from cabin fever, grab some summer-flowering bulbs, a bag of soil, and get going. It will give you something to look forward to!

You can contact Henry via email at He is the author of four gardening books and is one of the United Nations’ longtime Master Gardeners.

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