This is an old fashioned, but very rewarding garden plant. Zantedeschia
is named after Professor Zantedeschi, probably Giovanni Zantedeschi,
1773-1846, an Italian physician and botanist, although there is
some uncertainty about this. The name aethiopica is not directly
related to Ethiopia. In classical times it meant south of the known
world i.e. south of Egypt and Libya. Several southern African plants
were given this specific epiphet early on.Although
called the arum lily, it is neither an arum ( the genus Arum)
nor a lily ( genus Lilium). But it is associated with the
lily as a symbol of purity and these elegant flowers have graced
many bridal bouquets, as seen in this picture of a South African
bride in 1934.
It is an excellent cutflower and lasts a long time in water. Nowadays
there are other forms of this species which will enliven an old
theme. The 'Marshmallow' with a creamy pink spathe (outer "petal"
which is actually a modified leaf) and rose-pink throat and the
'Green Goddess'with a green and white spathe. There is also an attractive
form with leaves spotted white.
This lovely plant was introduced to Europe very early on, apparently
before Van Riebeeck had established the refreshment station at the
Cape. It is also illustrated in an account of the Royal Garden in
Paris in 1664. It was sent as one of the interesting plants of the
Cape to Europe by Simon van der Stel some time before 1697.
The striking arum lily "flower" is actually many tiny
flowers arranged in a complex spiral pattern on the central column
(spadix). The tiny flowers are arranged in male and female zones
on the spadix. The top 7 cm are male flowers and the lower 1.8 cm
are female. If you look through a hand-lens you may see the stringy
pollen emerging from the male flowers which consist largely of anthers.
The female flowers have an ovary with a short stalk above it, which
is the style (where the pollen is received). The spadix is surrounded
by the white or coloured spathe. According to Marloth, the whiteness
of the spathe is not caused by pigmentation, but is an optical effect
produced by numerous airspaces beneath the epidermis.
flowers are faintly scented and this attracts various crawling insects
and bees which are responsible for pollinating the flowers. Cross
pollination occurs as the anthers of each flower ripen before the
ovaries. A white crab spider of the family Thomisidae visits the
flower to eat the insects. This spider does not spin webs and uses
its whiteness as camouflage against the spathe. In the western Cape,
a tiny frog Hyperolius hopstocki is also attacted to the
arum lily flowers. The spathe turns green after flowering and covers
the ripening berries. It rots away when these are ripe and the succulent
yellow berries attract birds, which are responsible for seed dispersal.
The genus is restricted to the African continent with seven species
recognised: Zantedeschia aethiopica, Z. albomaculata, Z. elliottiana,
Z. jucunda, Z. odoratum, Z. pentlandii and Z. rehmannii. The
common arum is found from the Western Cape through the Eastern Cape,
KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and into the Northern Province. It is
evergreen or deciduous depending on the habitat and rainfall regime.
In the Western Cape it is dormant in summer and in the summer rainfall
areas it is dormant in winter. It will remain evergreen in both
areas if growing in marshy conditions which remain wet all year
aethiopica grows from 0.6-1 m but may get taller in the shade.
It has lush looking dark green leaves with an arrow head shape.
The size varies according to the amount of shade. The flowers appear
in a main flush from August to January, although there may be the
odd flower at other times of the year also. The white arum forms
large colonies in marshy areas ranging from the coast to an altitude
of 2250m. Thus one will find them contending with humid, salt laden
air at the coast and freezing, misty mountain grasslands at high
altitudes. They are very versatile in the garden as a result. The
leaves of the arum are very interesting in that they contain water
stomata which can discharge excess water, by a process known as
"guttation". This prevents water-logging and enables arum
lilies to grow in wet conditions.
The rhizome is large and eaten by wild pigs and porcupines and
the ripe fruit enjoyed by birds. Traditionally the plant is boiled
and eaten. Raw plant material causes swelling of the throat because
of microscopic, sharp calcium oxalate crystals. The leaves are also
traditionally used as a poultice and a treatment for headaches.
Growing Zantedeschia aethiopica
The white arum is very easily cultivated by seed or division. Seed
should be sown in spring. The fruit is ripe when it has turned yellowish
and is soft. The pulp should be removed and the seed dried off.
The grey seeds can be sown in clean seedling mix and covered lightly.
Take care not to sow them too thickly as they will need space to
form the fleshy roots. The fleshy rootstock can be divided when
the plant is dormant, it should be re-planted about 5 cm deep. It
may also be propagated by division where the plant is not dormant,
use a sharp spade to cut out a section for replanting.
The white arum may be used as a marginal plant along streams, or
on the edge of a pond. Plant in partial shade if there is no permanent
water. It can be planted as a foliage plant in deep shade under
trees but will not flower well in this position. It is fast growing
and likes very rich, well-drained conditions.
- Batten, A. 1986. Flowers of Southern Africa. Frandsen
- Du Plessis, N & Duncan, G. 1989. Bulbous Plants of Southern
Guide to their Cultivation and Propagation. Tafelberg.Cape
- Jackson,W.P.U. 1986. The Cape white arum lily, Zantedeschia
aethiopica in Veld& Flora 72:44-45
- Letty, C. 1973. The Genus Zantedeschia. Bothalia 11,
- Joffe P. 1993. The Gardener's Guide to South African Plants.
Delos. Cape Town
- Pooley, E. 1998. A Field Guide to Wild Flowers of Kwazulu-Natal
Eastern Region. Natal Flora Publications Trust. Durban
- Van Wyk, B-E, van Oudtshoorn, B & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal
Plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
With additions by Yvonne Reynolds