The Meaning of the Calla Flower

by Betsy Beacom

Throughout history, people have given flowers to each other as symbols infused with larger import, with the language and meaning of each flower evolving and changing over time. From ancient times, the giving of flowers has been a way of expressing emotion. The calla flower is a bloom of unusual splendor whose presence has graced many human gatherings as the symbol of rebirth and new beginnings as well as mourning, and its unique appearance has also made it the subject of many artists' work.

The Language of Flowers

During the Victorian period in the 19th century, the notion of a "flower language" became popular, especially in England and the United States. This “language” meant that certain flowers expressed particular feelings, and sending someone a bouquet delivered a very specific message based on the included flowers' meanings, so that spoken words were unnecessary. Even today, when the coded language of flowers is unnecessary, people give flowers on special occasions as a way of marking the occasion.

Weddings and Funerals

The tradition of flowering carrying special meanings lives on. Because many people choose the white calla lily flower for funerals, for instance, it has come to represent sympathy and mourning. Yet ironically, the calla lily is also a popular choice for bridal bouquets, both in white and in colors, perhaps because of its uniquely dramatic appearance and so it has also acquired an association with feminine beauty.

Sexual Symbolism

After Sigmund Freud wrote of the calla lily's sexually suggestive appearance in his 1905 book, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, many people saw the flower as symbolizing exoticism and sexuality, in particular representing sexual orientations such as bisexuality and homosexuality, because its structure and appearance evokes both male and female genitalia. Freud's sexual interpretation of the flower generated a trend, especially among artists, to view the flower as possessing erotic meanings.

The Calla Lily in Art

After the calla lily was brought to the United States from South America in the late 19th century, North American artists began to incorporate images of the flower into their works. Sigmund Freud's portrayal of the flower's sexual overtones got the attention of the art world, and many artists began depicting the calla lily in their works. Well-known artists such as Marsden Hartley, Man Ray and Joseph Stella were among those who used the calla lily in their work, and painter Georgia O’Keeffe's paintings of the calla lily in the early 1930s resulted in her moniker, “the lady of the lilies.” Salvador Dali, Ansel Adams and Robert Mapplethorpe have also portrayed the calla lily in their art, often with erotic meanings imbued in its representation. Mapplethorpe's work in particular has been controversial for its overtly sexualized portrayal of calla lily flowers, depicted so as to resemble male and female nudes.

About the Author

Betsy Beacom is a writer and editor with experience in education, marketing, Internet content, social media, the performing and visual arts, literature and more. She holds bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in literature, has taught English at Yale University and has more than 20 years' experience writing and editing.

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