Fiann O’Nuallain sings the praises of the trumpet-shaped lily which has long been an inspiration to artists as well as having deep symbolical connections for Irish nationalism and other countries striving for independence.

I love Easter lilies. They are a stunning flower and deeply imbued with metaphor – something not lost on artists. 

I think Georgia O’Keeffe, I think Imogen Cunningham and then those paintings by Diego Rivera soften my eye like a missed relegation penalty does for other men. 

Google at your own risk.

However, I can’t think of Rivera without thinking of Mexico’s struggle and the Irish connection of the San Patricios and I can’t think of O’Keeffe without thinking of her revolutionary pal Ernie O’Malley and the political context of this flower.

It’s a symbol of those who died in 1916 and the War of Independence and also how in every opportunity to upend empire and dismantle oppression, there is some Irish connection. 

I think how Margaret Thatcher called Nelson Mandela a “black provo” and how the Dunne’s Stores workers made a stand. 

I think of Roger Casement fighting for human rights in the Congo and South America.

I think of Christina Noble cherishing children everywhere, Sister Sarah Clarke and those wrongfully imprisoned, Tom and Kathleen Clarke for everything that allows me to be who I am today, of Ho Chi Minh taking inspiration from Michael Collins, Che Guevara being a descendant of Patrick Lynch, who left Galway in the 1700s and on it goes.

Once upon a time many Irish people wore paper lilies at Easter to honour past patriots much like English people don poppies in November. 

Then there was a time you’d nearly be arrested for wearing one — but Easter lilies in their floral aspect at least, were prominent at the recent centenary commemorations and since then, some garden centres have had a run on them.

I think it’s a lovely idea to plant some in your garden to remember this centenary year, as much as you might any family connections to 1916 or Irish liberation or solidarity with the oppressed who seek to not be. 

Some grow them for other symbolism and that’s in the Easter part of the name — those trumpet-shaped white flowers heralding the spiritual essence of Easter — hope and life renewing. Grow them for that, that’s beautiful. 

Christian or not, that intent is what we need more of.

The Christian tradition has them representing purity, virtue and innocence but also melancholy and suffering (hence their appearance on sympathy cards). 

The original myth was that they germinated from the drops of Christ’s sweat and tears issued in his hours of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In some circles Eve is the cause and it was her tears of sorrow (post apple) that caused the mournful blooms (every cloud and all that). 

I see joy and beauty and elegance in them and I grow them as much for aesthetic as other reasons. 

I do like the Juno spilt milk story — one day when breastfeeding her son, Hercules, Juno expressed a little extra and so created the Milky Way. 

Some drops fell to earth and up came beautiful flowers — all callas (meaning beautiful) — the other common name for our Easter lily.

Now that we are on to names, the Easter lily or calla lily is not a lily at all. 

It is not Liliaceae, but of the Araceae family — more an arum, like lords and ladies (Arum maculatum). 

The petal-like cup of our Easter flower is actually a white spathe and the inflorescence is a yellow spadix.

Which reminds me of some horticultural craziness. I get great craic out of those peculiar British Victorians and their weird morals. 

They used to spay or neuter the Easter lilies, as the spadix was a little too suggestive of a penis for their sensibilities (and either their bad eyesight or poor anatomy).

Our Easter lily is currently botanically called Zantedeschia aethiopica, originally the father of botanic nomenclature, Carl Linnaeus, described it in 1753 as Calla aethiopica — translating as beauty from Ethiopia. It is in fact native across Africa and not confined to Ethiopia.

Somewhere in the 1800s it was reclassified as Zantedeschia in honour of an Italian botanist Giovanni Zantedeschi. 

Why? I don’t think anybody can remember. Usually a pal names it for you and you name one back. 

I know I am an upstart but I’d have called it after Shaka Zulu (Shaka kaSenzangakhona) — a great anti-imperialist. And sure KaSenzangakhona aethiopica trips off the tongue as easy as Zantedeschia aethiopica. 

It grows on Zulu territory and it features in Zulu ethnobotany as a pot herb. (I wouldn’t try it - too many calcium oxalate crystals to risk it) and as a headache poultice. For some it causes skin reactions. It’s Zulu name is ihlukwe.

Maybe when we get around to reversing the place names and plant names of invaded and colonised territories from Italian, French, German, British and Belgian doctors and generals to something more respectful of origin, we can share the earth and her botanical wealth with parity of esteem. S

ee what this plant brings out in me? I love it for that too.

So how to grow? In its native environment it tolerates misty mountain grasslands at high altitudes (cold and dry) as well as salt-laden air at the coast (tough and hot) and interior wetlands (moist). It has this great ability known as ‘guttation’. 

Its foliage can sweat off and disperse excess water from its roots so it can adapt to not succumb to water-logging but its ability to also clean waste water and halt algal growth has potential with phyto-remediation, water purification and urban wetlands projects.

In a garden setting it is very adaptable — from well drained to pond marginal. 

It’s a bit strange in that it grows taller in the shade — flowers less there also, so a bit of a balancing act between big tropical leaves or cut flowers. 

Place it for the effect you want. It bulks up quick enough and it divides (when dormant) like a charm. In some gardens it will not go dormant and that’s okay. Divide in the green whenever you need.

When I trained we were advised to wear gloves when dealing with the plant as it has a reputation of reaction but I have not found it the case. 

So just in case take precautions with any torn leave/stem and exuding sap. And when it comes to my invisibility in the face of toxic plants don’t worry I’ll get it somehow. 

There is the old Irish saying “if you’re born to be shot you’ll not be poisoned”.

So until next week — Up the Republic ... And joyous gardening!


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