Elegant New Life For Gaudy Canna

We can see from this 1991 article both the enthusiasm that started the rehabilitation of Canna as a popular garden plant, but sadly we can also see origins of the misnaming of plants, and some of the ill-informed myths that have built up around Canna in recent years.Thor Dalebø

A reprint of a Canna News article first published FRIDAY 1 FEBRUARY 2008

Elegant new life for gaudy Canna

New York Times
Elegant New Life For Gaudy Canna
Published: August 22, 1991

THE stately canna — pride of gas stations, municipal buildings and (horror of horrors) Victorian planting beds — has long languished under its stereotyped image. For half a century, and then some, these towering tropical plants, with their bold, paddle-shaped leaves, have been disdained by the taste makers of the garden world.

But suddenly — or so it seems — the vulgar duckling is now an elegant swan. Extensive hybridizing has yielded plants with heights from one and a half to over seven feet, flowers in every conceivable color (with freckles and splotches too) and foliage streaked with yellow, silver-blue or maroon. To these developments must be added a long period of bloom that starts in the heat of midsummer, when other flowers falter, and often lasts to frost.

Gardeners are taking note. “Sales are now more than double that of just a few years ago,” said Debbie Van Bourgondien, whose family owns a mail-order business in Babylon, L.I. “We shipped well over several hundred thousand cannas this year.”

Canna ‘Primrose Yellow’

Among her best sellers are the group called dwarfs, “although dwarfs aren’t quite as tiny as some people expect,” she said. “They really are between two and three feet tall, which is not exactly window box size,” she said. Popular dwarfs include Lucifer, a red flower with a yellow splotch; Ambrosia, an orange pink, and Pfitzer primrose yellow.

Canna (actually Kanna), is Greek for reed, an apt description of the plant’s tall, unbranched stem. Canna is the only genus in the family, which includes nearly 60 species, all natives of tropical and subtropical regions. Although several species are sold commercially, the countless progeny, or hybrids, have the greatest appeal.

Given a minimum of six hours of sun daily, the slender stalks produce clusters of grand, showy flowers, which vaguely resemble orchids. To keep the plants in bloom, the spent flowers must be snipped away. Herbert Kelly Jr. has been a canna enthusiast since he was a child, so he is gratified that the public has finally seen the light. A mail-order nurseryman in Sanger, Calif., he has been breeding and collecting cannas professionally for more than a decade. “Five years ago I sold maybe 100 in a season,” he said. “This year it was more like a thousand.” He plans to expand his one-acre growing field to five acres.

The hundred or so kinds of cannas he now stocks include several he bred himself, like Exotica, a four- to five-foot-tall plant whose golden flowers are a dappled orange that change to scarlet with age, and Tigermoth, which has similar flower color but blue-green foliage. And then there is the one he calls “the dwarfest in history,” slipping into the hyperbole he cannot avoid when speaking of his treasures. Only one-and-a-half feet tall, Pygmy Flame is a fiery dark red.

Canna ‘Durban’

He claims to have the “largest collection of rare and unusual and hard-to-find cannas possibly in the world.” A mutation he hopes to patent in a year or two is named Durban. This four- to five-foot-tall orange-red bloomer has lavender stalks and leaves, which provide a kaleidoscopic display as they develop and change from orange-red to pink and then gold. He describes it as “the most beautiful foliage canna ever in existence.”

Like most warm climate gardeners, Mr. Kelly leaves his cannas in the ground all year. But in nippier areas, including New York, cannas can be outdoors only in summer. In late autumn, after the leaves have been touched by frost, they must be cut down, and the large roots — actually underground stems called rhizomes — are dug up from the ground. The rhizomes are then covered with leaves or barely moist peat moss, stored in a cool dry place and occasionally sprinkled with water to prevent total dehydration. Mr. Kelly suggests a light sprinkling of a fungicide bulb dust to help prevent disease. In late winter, the rhizomes are then replanted in pots and placed in a sunny window to await warm weather and the move outdoors in spring.

Holly Shimizu is one of the gardeners taking another look at this old-fashioned plant. The head of outdoor gardens for the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, Ms. Shimizu said that as recently as three years ago, she “hated them — absolutely despised them. I associated them with the worst heat of summer, the worst of Victorian stiffness and certainly the least beautiful aspect of grandmother’s garden.”

A former curator of the herb garden at the National Arboretum in Washington, Ms. Shimizu began rethinking her approach to design in 1988 when she assumed responsibility for the Botanic Garden. Last year she and her crew of four planted several hundred cannas in a corner of the five-acre site, grouping like hybrids together. “Although the more water and fertilizer they’re given, the bigger and lusher they grow,” she said, she was impressed at how easily they shrugged off relentless heat and drought.

Canna ‘Tropical Rose’

This year, more than 24 hybrids and at least 1,000 cannas have been added to the Botanic Garden. But this time they have been carefully positioned among the perennials and annuals. And where last year’s design resembled a color wheel, this year, she said, there are blocks of color throughout, and “every shade in the rainbow.” “I go for cannas that have something special,” she said. This includes plants like Ambassador, which has glowing red flowers and purple leaves; Striped Beauty, a yellow bloomer with lemon-yellow striped foliage, and Omega, with orange flowers at a height of some 14 feet. This year, she also experimented with the new Tropical Rose, a pink All-America Selection winner that will be available to the public next year.

“My problem is guessing what new plants really look like,” she said. “Catalogue color pictures just aren’t true — and that’s going to be the hardest part for the future.”

A Sampler

· Red or Crimson Flowers Black Knight, 3 feet tall, bronze leaves
· Pfitzer Chinese Coral, 2 feet tall
· Pfitzer Crimson Beauty, 1 1/2 feet
· Rosamunde Cole, 3 1/2 feet
· The President, 3 feet
· Ambassador, 4 feet, purple leaves
· Orange Flowers Wyoming, 4 feet, bronze leaves
· Orange Beauty, 4 feet
· Omega, 14 to 16 feet
· Pink Flowers Pink President, 3 feet
· Tropical Rose, 2 1/2 feet
· Rosever, 4 feet, purplish leaves
· Yellow or Orange Flowers Richard Wallace, 4 feet
· Flamingo, 5 feet, purple leaves
· Striped Beauty, 3 feet
· Pretoria, 6 feet, gold striations on leaves
· Mixed Color Flowers Lucifer, 2 feet, red and yellow flowers
· Garbo, 6 feet, yellow flowers changing to salmon pink, purple leaves
· Freckles, 5 feet, yellow with red pink dots

The Sources

If your favorite nursery no longer has cannas, look ahead to next year. A good selection of rhizomes (root-like underground stems) will be available, and now is the time to get on the spring lists of mail-order suppliers. Prices begin at around $3 for three rhizomes but may go as high as $100. Shipping is in early spring. Rhizomes are started in pots indoors and planted outdoors in warm weather.

KELLY’S PLANT WORLD 10266 East Princeton, Sanger, Calif. 93657; (209) 292-3505. Send $1 for list (refundable on first order).

VAN BOURGONDIEN BROTHERS P.O. Box A, Babylon, N.Y. 11702; (800) 622-9997. Free catalogue.

DUTCH GARDENS INC. P.O. Box 200, Adelphia, N.J. 07710; (908) 780-2713. Free catalogue.

MARY WALKER BULB FARM P.O. Box 256, Omega, Ga. 31775. Free flier.

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