It’s a plant with multiple personalities—but not exactly schizophrenic—and it’s also one of those plants many gardeners have a love/hate relationship with.
It’s also a plant that seems to come into vogue every 15 years or so, which means we’re smack in the middle of one of those resurgences.
Lucky us. The canna is back.
I remember a long garden bed, maybe 50 feet long and 3 feet wide, along the private drive that led to my family’s house that was filled with these plants for a number of summers. Late every spring, my father would go down to the coldest part of our basement and retrieve a few plastic bags filled with their wondrous roots (well, to be technically correct, tubers), which he’d plant. Late in those summers, the long border would be thick with 5 and 6-foot-tall plants sprouting 2-foot-long banana leaves of greens and reds and spikes of flowers in pink, red, yellow and orange.
As I got older, I began to dread these plants because of the work they meant I’d have to do at the end of the season, the time when many gardeners learn to fear the wonderful canna. After the first frost, the foliage would crisp and wither within hours and that was the signal that it was time for me to get out there and dig, for the canna is a tender plant and if its roots are not stored indoors, they rapidly turn to mush in the soil.
Easy enough, you say? Well, you need a strong back and a hardened pitchfork to dig out those tuberous roots, which can weigh several pounds if the plants have grown well during the summer. And once they’re dug, the roots should be divided—so that each division has several eyes—then dried outdoors for a day or so. Once dried, they can be packed in peat moss, put in plastic bags with holes and stored in a cool, dry spot (cool not freezing) until next year. The problems arise from the fact that each healthy plant can produce enough new growth for two to four new divisions so, you give them to friends, who give them to friends and soon the whole neighborhood hates you ‘cause no one wants any more!
But they are wonderful.
Cannas make beautiful specimen plants. They lend striking foliage accents in a garden. And their flowers are stunning. Plus, they’re one of the few large plants that flower late in the summer and sometimes into early fall.
Native to the swamps and wetlands of South Carolina and Florida (where they are hardy), cannas were brought to Europe in the 1600s where they were crossed with other species found in South and Central America and for more than two centuries they were cultured, but looked nothing like the plants we grow now. It was in the 1850s that some really fancy hybridizing was done in France and in 1893, cannas were featured at the Great Exposition in Paris and the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago where they were displayed in 76 beds that extended 1,000 feet. Wow.
Several years after these two great shows, the canna fell out of favor, though Wilhelm Pfitzer was introducing new varieties. The Pfitzer hybrids became the rage in the 1950s and those were the ones that I was relegated to dig and divide. They became popular again in the mid-1970s with the introduction of several dwarf varieties, but again faded from favor. Still, hobby breeders and some pros stayed hard at work developing flowers in new colors. Even the foliage has gone through changes and now there are varieties with stripes of yellow and white and even variegations. In fact, there are now several varieties grown solely for their foliage.
Another recent breakthrough in the world of cannas is that they can be grown from seed. The seed, available in a number of mail order catalogs, is planted indoors in late winter and the plants flower in the garden that summer. This kind of solves the problem of what to do with excess tubers since you can simply reseed every year. But the seed-grown plants so far are just a tease of the hybrids grown from roots and they lack in size and interest.
Not coincidentally, 1993 was the 100th anniversary of the 1893 expositions and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden celebrated with a special festival that is repeated to a lesser degree every August. The display can include more than 100 varieties in 11 different beds in a rainbow of colors and a wide range of sizes that are interplanted with other Victorian classics.
If you do catch the canna bug, remember that these plants are not only spectacular to see, but very easy to grow so long as you remember that they are lovers of heat and sun. There is always a wonderful summer display in Hampton Bays, at the foot of the Hampton Maid driveway along Montauk Highway.
To get the best show, some gardeners start a number of the tubers indoors at about the time that tomato seeds are started. To get them going, they need a warm spot to stimulate the tubers to sprout and grow. They prefer a soil temperature of 70 degrees and require very little water until foliage appears. They shouldn’t be planted outside until the soil is nice and warm (any day now) since cold and wet soil will only lead to rot. If you plant pre-started plants and roots at the same time you’ll have an extended period of bloom that will run from early August well into late September or later, if it’s a mild spring.
The roots are available at some garden centers in the spring, but by the time they’re available it’s too late to get them started indoors. Most gardeners get their roots from friends or from catalogs such as Long Island’s K. Van Bourgondien & Sons in Babylon (dutchbulbs.com ), which offers about 15 of the more common varieties every year. For some more exotic choices you can try Old House Gardens (oldhousegardens.com), which offers 17 heirloom varieties, some of which date back to the 19th century. The Horn Canna Farm (cannas.net) may have the largest selection with nearly 30 offerings. Local garden centers may also be able to find you some unusual varieties and some will have potted plants ready to plant in early summer. The plants are virtually insect and disease free and once you get the knack of winter storage, you’ll have stock for a lifetime. Keep growing!
*Andrew Messinger has been a professional horticulturist for more than 30 years. He divides his time between homes and gardens in Southampton, Westchester and the Catskills. E-mail him at: Andrew@hamptongardener.com. The Hampton Gardener is a registered trademark.