Gardeners' Dirt: Colorful canna lilies - not lilies at all
By By Doris Martinak - Victoria County Master Gardener Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
Feb. 21, 2013 at midnight
Updated Feb. 20, 2013 at 8:21 p.m.
EASY TO GROW
• Plant in early spring for blooms the first year
• Place in soil, near water or in container
• Mulch when planting to minimize maintenance
• Remove spent flowers to extend blooming period
• Thrive in direct sun; can survive in partial shade
• Require little to no care
• Can be divided every 3-4 years to prevent overcrowding
CANNA LILY ATTRIBUTES
• Attracts hummingbirds (especially strong-colored blooms)
• Work as cut flowers (striking in bright solids or mixed pastels)
• Have many uses around the world (horticulture, agriculture and food value; seeds used in jewelry/musical instruments)
Like the daylily, the canna lily is not a lily at all. It belongs to the Cannaceae family and not the Liliaceae family.
"The Gardener's Guide to Growing Lilies," by Michael Jefferson-Brown and Harris Howland, lists about 32 different plants with lily in the name that are not lilies. The authors refer to them as false lilies.
A bit about them
The canna lily has a very lengthy history. Having originated in South America, they have pretty much spread over much of the world where growing conditions are favorable. According to Ian Cooke, in his book, "The Gardener's Guide to Growing Cannas," there were mentions of cannas and how to grow them as far back as 1629.
If you Google canna lilies, the Wikipedia site tells of different uses for cannas. Some of them are quite surprising. In addition to horticultural popularity, cannas have various agricultural uses and are rich in starch. They are actually grown as food crops in other parts of the world. The canna seeds are used in jewelry and musical instruments in some cultures.
They became quite the gardening rage for some years, but then interest became less intense. Plants do seem to go through cycles of popularity.
Require little care
In South Texas, we pretty much take cannas for granted without giving a lot of thought or care to them as they seem to thrive on their own very well. Years ago, either I bought or a friend gave me cannas. I can't recall now. Instead of planting them, I set them on the ground by the fence, promptly forgetting about them.
Those cannas are still growing and blooming with hardly any care at all except for watering and cutting them back from time to time.
Perennials in south; annuals in north
Doing a little research has been a true eye-opener regarding these cultivars. While we may give them short shrift, in northern climes they are much appreciated for their tropical attributes.
In South Texas, canna lilies are perennials, but up North, they are annuals. Each year when winter is approaching there, cannas are carefully dug up, labeled and stored over the winter to be planted again in the spring.
Varied blooms, leaves and heights
Cannas bloom in a rainbow of colors. Not only do they bloom in red, orange and the speckled one we see in our area, but there are gorgeous pink, yellow and near white among other color combinations.
The leaves are quite tropical looking. Cannas can have solid green or variegated leaves while others are very dramatic with dark purple foliage.
They also are available in different heights. Tall cannas are good plants for the back of the flower beds or as specimen plants. Those less tall look good planted among other plants or in front of flower beds.
Division of cannas is the most usual way of obtaining new plants. Fall or early spring are the best times to divide cannas.
In addition to growing in soil, cannas do well by water features. Containers also can make happy homes for cannas.
Like the iris, they grow from sturdy rhizomes. They are not bulbs but are often referred to as bulbs. If in dividing the rhizome it is necessary to cut it, be sure to have some eyes or a bit of new growth on each section.
After blooming, attractive seed pods form. When they turn dark brown and begin cracking open, it is time to harvest. The seeds are a nice size and have a hard shell. I have gathered the pods but never planted them despite good intentions. It would be a good idea to scarify the seeds before planting if you choose to do so.
Caring for leaves
If for one reason or another the leaves begin to look ragged, I just cut them down - and before you know it, new leaves develop.
There does exist a challenge with leaf rollers. Apparently they roll the leaf up. As explained in "Heirloom Gardening in the South," by William C. Welch and Greg Grant, leaf rollers can be controlled with Bacillus thuringiensis. The authors explain that the leaf roller is actually the larvae of the Brazilian skipper butterfly. The leaf roller can do a lot of unsightly damage. At this point in time, I have never had the leaf roller problem, and I hope I can continue to claim that.
If you haven't grown cannas, consider experimenting with them this year. Obtain new or divided cannas in early spring, and they should continue to do very well in our climate. They can be a valuable addition to your landscape in the soil, near a water feature or in a container for years to come.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.