Okay, I’ll admit it, I have always had a love affair with cannas. Having grown up in southern California, cannas were a staple item in the landscape. The large growing varieties that reached 6 to 8 feet tall were seen throughout most of the public parks where they were used in formal plantings, much like they were back in Victorian times. If you travel up north, you might see some spectacular displays at the Peace Arch in Blaine.
Cannas have a stately posture (soaring upward of 10 to 12 feet tall), flamboyant blossoms, and sometimes gaudy foliage. They bloom all summer (which for the northwest means July until frost), producing stalk after stalk of gladiola-like flowers in 2-ft tall spikes at the tops of the plants. The huge, paddle-like leaves are reminiscent of a banana’s leaf, but cannas can come in striped and colored flavors.
Most cannas grown today are hybrids between many South American and Asian species. Modern breeding has also shrunk down the size of cannas to the point that you can find varieties than only get 2 to 3 feet tall and will bloom as low as 18 inches, which makes them well suited for smaller containers and/or gardens (but of course some of the drama is lost in the process).
To use cannas in today’s mixed border landscapes, plant them in clumps towards the middle or back of a border, and contrast them with finer textured plants such as the many beautiful ornamental grasses that are available these days. Cannas love the sun, lots of moisture (they will actually grow in a pond), and tons of food. They will continue to bloom until frost, whether you dead-head them or not, but of course they will look a lot tidier if the spent stalks are cut off at ground level. After the first frost, it is best to dig cannas up. I cut off all the stalks about 6 inches above the ground, dig up the rhizomes and wash them off, and place them in a plastic garbage bag, which I leave partially open so there is some air exchange. Put them in a cool, frost-free area and check on them throughout the winter. You can plant them back outside the following May.
This is the perfect time to find cannas in the garden centers although they probably won’t be in bloom unless they were grown in California. Here are some of my favorites that I have grown over the years…
Pretoria (aka Bengal Tiger or Tropicana Gold) — This is probably my all-time favorite canna. The dramatic green and yellow striped leaves are topped in summer with bright orange flowers.
Tropicana (aka Phaison) — My second choice for gaudiness, this canna has foliage of purple with dramatic stripes of yellow and red evenly spaced throughout the leaf. Wonderfully shocking orange flowers top this 7’ tall plant.
Canna glauca — There are two popular hybrids in this variety, ‘Panache’ and ‘Erebus’. They both have narrow grey-green foliage that is not so overpowering. ‘Panache’ sports dark pink buds that open to charming salmon-pink flowers and ‘Erebus’ has salmon flowers. I’ve tried both of these and they work well in containers (they only grow 3’ tall), but overall they just aren’t robust enough for my tastes.
Intrigue — This is a super variety that has narrow purple-grey leaves, delicate orange-red flowers and still grows 6 to 8 ft tall.
Don’t be too concerned about finding these exact varieties as there are many new ones on the market, just plan on incorporating a few different selections for an all summer display of foliar and floral drama. You won’t be disappointed!
Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.