Sow There!: How to choose the right calla lilies 11/9/2017

Sturdy, statuesque calla lilies are easier to buy from a frou-frou flower shop than to grow on your own.
Sturdy, statuesque calla lilies are easier to buy from a frou-frou flower shop than to grow on your own. Photo by Heather Hacking
In early spring I chose the perfect gift for my friend Samantha. She carried gorgeous white calla lilies as her wedding bouquet. I was two months late buying her a wedding gift, so I hoped to think of something that would dazzle her for years to come.

My intention was to plant her a pot of calla bulbs that would bloom year after year. As her marital bliss grew, so would the plants. If all went well, I might even remember to go to her house, under cover of darkness, and divide the bulbs when her first child was age 3.

The flowers bloomed last spring. I felt like a gift-giving goddess.

As it turns out, I had a poor plan. As usual, I gained new knowledge through making a mistake.

First off, callas aren’t bulbs. They’re rhizomes. The distinction is subtle, but technically rhizomes are underground stems.

Now that we have the terminology correct, I’ll go on to describe the other mistakes I made with this well-intentioned gift that won’t keep giving.

The gorgeous, tall, unbelievably hardy flowers in Samantha’s bouquet were white.

I bought callas of many colors.

In early summer I called Jerry Mendon at Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise. My intention was to learn how to care for Samantha’s calla lilies, as well as the bag I bought for myself.

Jerry did not chide me for my poor gift choice, but he did give me the honest truth. Colored callas should be treated as annual bulbs, he said.

This was the last time I had a chance to learn from Jerry, who died Aug. 31 at the age of 87. I miss him.

I had a lot of questions that day, and I wished I had asked him more. Later this year I’ll share what he said about lawns.

“What should I do now that the bulbs have bloomed?” I asked.

“Throw them in the trash,” was his response.

Even though colored calla bulbs are one-shot wonders in the Sacramento Valley climate, they’re still worth planting. They made a gorgeous outdoor bouquet. Now that I know they won’t rebloom, I wish I had cut the flowers from my yard and put them in a vase for Samantha.

Tulips planted in Chico are similar. If tulips do bloom the second year, they look scraggly, like something that survived a hail storm, just barely. Gophers also love tulip bulbs and seem to search them out like pigs hunting for truffles.

Now that I no longer have a cat, and the gophers know the cat is gone, I will only be planting bulbs in pots this year.


With more flower knowledge, I’m now on the hunt for some tall, white calla lily rhizomes, which should rebloom the second year in our climate zone. My friend is due to have a baby any day now, and statuesque white tulips would be a lovely baby gift. Given that I tend to be late with giving gifts, it’ll be just my style to give her the white (potted) calla rhizomes in early spring.

Calla’s like rich soil, so add compost just about any time you think of it. Push the rhizomes 3-4 inches below the soil. Ideally, you would space them 12-18 inches apart, but who has the patience to allow them to fill the planting area?

This is why we need local nurseries, to supply us with more rhizomes when we refuse to follow plant rules.

Callas also need consistent moisture. In Chico’s heat, your best bet is to add a couple of inches of mulch to the top of the container.

To learn a few more things, check out this article online at

Garden enthusiast Heather Hacking can be contacted at For snail mail, P.O. Box 5166, Chico CA 95927.

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