Cannas bring lush tropical touch to landscape

Flower: Easy-to-grow rhizomes gain popularity with those who want to add a splash of color to the view.

In The Garden

April 01, 2001|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

Tropical plants have been changing the palette and character of summer gardens in every climate lately. Lush, leafy canna lilies, rising above ranks of predictable petunias and marigolds, are leading the charge.

"Cannas have always been the most popular tropical plant in northern gardens," says James Waddick, a Kansas City expert who is working on a book about cannas. "They grow fast, and they have great foliage and wonderful flowers. But what makes them big now -- it's the new tropicalismo."

Tropical plants have become wildly popular. The big leaves and bold calypso colors typical of many tropical plants, especially cannas, revive late-summer flowerbeds. It may seem a bit jarring to inject a few exotic tropical plants into a traditional garden, but the precedent is well-established.

Victorian gardeners used cannas with a flourish, growing them like fantastic green geysers at the center of elaborate annual flowerbeds. The great English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll depended on cannas to give her late-summer gardens a lift. The contemporary American garden designers Wolfgang Oehme and James Van Sweden, whose sophisticated gardens reach the peak of their color and drama toward the end of the season, weave flashy cannas into their designs.

Most Victorian cannas had plain green foliage, but modern gardeners have more choices. Flashy cannas with bright green-and-yellow-striped leaves, pink-striped bronze foliage, or purple or nearly black leaves, are popular now. The broad, pointed leaves unfurl in graceful, sweeping gestures around the leafstalks, and red, yellow, orange or pink flowers, sometimes charmingly spotted, shoot up from their leafy tops. Hummingbirds love these flowers.

"Cannas are big and bold and easy to grow," says Claire Sawyers, director of the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, just outside Philadelphia. The college arboretum is designed to provide ideas for home gardeners, and last summer, tropical cannas of every stripe were prominently featured among nearly 100 containers planted with terrific combinations of annual plants. Rhoda Maurer, who works on the designs for the containers and flowerbeds at the arboretum, thinks of cannas primarily as foliage plants. "They have incredible foliage interest," she says, "but their scale is really good, too. They work hard the entire summer season. They never go out, never fade, never decide to stop being of interest."

Cannas thrive in heat, bloom until frost and need little care. Most gardeners grow cannas from rhizomes, which can be planted in spring as soon as it's comfortable to be in the garden in shirtsleeves. They need a sunny spot but are not particular about soil. As long as they receive plenty of moisture, they will flourish.

Cannas thrive at the edge of a pond and even can be planted in pots placed underwater. Although tall varieties grow to 7 feet or more, they are sturdy plants and shouldn't need staking, even in fairly windy spots.

For all their assertiveness, cannas are easy to combine with other plants, Maurer says. "You can intensify color with them. You can make soothing or arresting combinations. It all depends on what you mix them with."

In Maurer's own garden, cannas with deep red foliage are planted in a dramatic screen against a pale stucco house. The tall cannas create privacy near the entrance, and the deep red leaves, set above other plants with dark green foliage, have a restful, cooling effect.

Maurer also likes to plant cannas with salvias and other fine-textured plants for contrast, and she uses cannas to accentuate garden views. The tall plants can be planted as specimens, but "from a design perspective, we tend to use them as fill, rather than as focal points," she says.

Containers are another matter. "If you want a bold, dramatic container, cannas are part of the show," Maurer says. Simple combinations are the most effective. Dark-leaved cannas ('Durban' or 'Tropicanna' are good choices) look handsome with the red flowers of Salvia vanhouttii. Fancy striped canna 'Pretoria,' sometimes called Bengal Tiger, is striking with the yellow and orange tubular flowers of Cuphea micropetala and purple Verbena 'Imagination.' The chartreuse leaves of the ornamental sweet-potato vine 'Marguerite' and striped canna 'Pretoria' fill a flower pot by themselves and need no further embellishment.

SOURCES

Canna rhizomes are sold at garden shops in spring and often are available already planted and growing in pots. Tall varieties generally grow about 7 feet, and dwarf cannas may be only about 3 feet tall. All varieties thrive in sunny gardens, flowerbeds or pots.

Prices vary, but most varieties are available for $1-$5 per rhizome. A big, 20-inch flowerpot can be planted with four to six rhizomes for a spectacular show all summer long.

Many mail-order garden companies also offer canna lilies of all descriptions.

The following companies have a good selection of cannas:

Brent & Becky's Bulbs

7463 Heath Trail

Gloucester, VA 23061

877-661-2852

www.brentandbeckysbulbs. com

Wayside Gardens

1 Garden Lane

Hodges, SC 29695

800-845-1124

www.waysidegardens.com

Stokes Tropicals

P.O. Box 9868

New Iberia, LA 70562

800-624-9706

www.stokestropicals.com

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