Late Bloomer Gilds the Lily

August 13, 2012

‘Clivia, oh Clivia, say have you met Clivia … Clivia the Tattooed Lady’.

OK, if you’re not a Marx Brothers’ fan, you’re wondering what on earth I’m talking about. If you are a fan, please indulge me. It’s of course the wacky song Groucho sings in the 1937 film A Day at the Races.

Sometimes pronounced “clive” after their namesake Lady Charlotte Florentine Clive, I much prefer the flower name to rhyme with “trivia’ – otherwise how could I possibly burst into song each year when they show themselves?

orange Clivias

Who says gardens are dull in winter? Apart from my singing (and clivias) we’ve got an explosion of  pale pink marguerite daisies, cymbidium orchids, violets, snowdrops, enormous calla lilies and gorgeous bearded irises that just keep on giving.

I love calla lilies and they’re especially striking this season, standing tall opposite the front door. I like to think we chose that position in keeping with the Romans who planted them inside the portal to their homes for a winter solstice bloom, simulating indoor sunlight for the darkest days of the year. The greater the display usually meant the wealthier the resident. We’re still playing Lotto with no success, so the display’s modest.
Calla Lillies in gardenSuch a versatile flower too: it’s both a symbol of fertility and death – used at weddings and also placed on graves. Or on female TV vampires in 1960s sitcoms as they slept corpse-like at 1313 Mockingbird Lane.

American artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted some exquisite calla lilies in the early 1930s.

As for memorable calla lily film scenes, there’s a pearler in the 1937 comedy Stage Door, about a boarding house full of aspiring actresses and their dreams and disappointments.

“The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower…” Can you guess the actress in the scene on this sound clip from Stage Door?

I’m a late bloomer, much to my mother’s delight. Neither of my parents were good gardeners, only growing an essential patch of north-east Italian radicchio and various herbs (see earlier post Secret Radicchio Society).

For a while, my mother tried her best, showing a talent for breaking off geranium stems, sticking them willy nilly in dry garden beds and hoping for the best. (I think she secretly wanted to create a bit of Tyrol in Sydney’s inner-west, bless her.) The result was a little sad until I took over and brought many neglected plants back to life.

I’ve left one geranium for her to tend round the back of the house. And I tend the lilies.

It’s a win-win really.

The photo at right is of my mother and me in 1960, in our Sunday best, standing proudly in front of a spider fern. Notice the ubiquitous geranium lurking in the background.




  1. That’s a beautiful photo of you and your mother. I’m sure my mother had the same dress; in fuchsia … I love the potted plant. The grass looks good too. I’m off to plant some calla lillies or does abundance apply if I can see them planted under my neighbour’s balcony?

    • Yes, plant callas, so you can pick them and put them in a vase. They don’t ask for much and will reward you every year. Love ’em.

  2. Ambra what a beautiful photo – your mother was one classy lady!

    • Yes she was Paola. She used to make some of her clothes (and mine) but I think the dress she was wearing may have been brought from Trieste. No trackie pants back in those days!

      • “la bella figura” was very important – I wish it still was – trackie pants and ugg boots should be banned from wearing outside your front door!

  3. Agree. Hideous stuff!

  4. I love your clean white socks and is that a bow in your hair? Clivias and lilies are some of my favourite plants – nice story!

    • Yep, bow in hair and hand-made corduroy dress. What every smart young gal was wearing in the inner-west in 1960.

  5. That is such a gorgeous photo, I imagine full of memories :))

    • Thanks Sandi. Yes, it’s a nice photo. We were lucky enough to live next door to a professional photographer (also from Trieste!) for a few years and we still have lots of lovely snaps in our albums – and shoeboxes!

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