20th Annual International American Society of Botanical Artists & The Horticultural Society of New York

Calla lily

Zantedeschia aethiopica

The very mention of Calla lily evokes images by Georgia O’Keefe (caricatured as the Lady of the Lily), Marsden Hartley, Tiffany, Charles Demuth, Dali, Piet Mondrian, Imogen Cunningham, Carlotta Corpron, Tina Modotti, Robert Mapplethorpe---all of whom have famously celebrated this plant in their art.


Freud’s identification of the Calla’s sexual/psychological symbolism pervaded early 20th century American and European aesthetic consciousness and informed the work of poets and artists. The green goddess lily is a favorite with designers and caterers, for bouquets at funerals and at weddings. Yet every part of the plant is toxic if ingested raw.


This plant goes by numerous aliases---arum lily, crowborough, green goddess lily, green spathe, varkblom, and most commonly as Calla lily. Oddly enough it is neither Calla nor lily but a member of the Araceae family. The original Linnaean category was amended by 19th century German botanists who named the genus in honor of Giovanni Zantedeschi (1773-1846), an Italian physician and passionate botanist.


Its leaves are long, luxuriant and quite dramatic, twisting and undulating and often speckled with white spots. From the foliage a smooth, sturdy stem, rises loftily to end in a trumpet-like swirl of contrasting color---shades of white, yellow, pink, crimson and purple. This is a large modified leaf, a spathe, sheathing a fleshy central axis clustered tightly with tiny flowers in a spadix. The flowers are monoecious---either male or female, but both sexes are found on the same plant.


You may wonder why all this botanical information is pertinent. Here is what arrested my attention---the inherent contrast between the regal hauteur of the statuesque external form and the concealed timidity of the true flowers. We all, pollinators included, are captivated by jazzy colors, beguiling shapes and intoxicating scents, but any further exploration reveals how much more lurks beneath the surface.


Earlier on I had painted a white Z. ethiopica and this pink plant is a companion piece. Aside from color there are other differences which I wished to investigate. The thrill of discovery and the challenge of portraying the plant's less obvious features is what most botanical illustrators find thoroughly gratifying.

Read more about this artist’s work: 19th Annual International


  • ©2008 milly acharya
    Calla lily
    Zantedeschia aethiopica
    Watercolor on paper
    20" x 14"