Canna lilies: Bold perennials for the flamboyant gardener

Cannas grow as tall as 12 feet — just be sure to give them tons of sun, moisture and food.

OK, I’ll admit it — I’ve always had a love affair with cannas.

When I was growing up in Southern California, cannas were a landscaping staple. The large varieties were used in formal plantings at public parks, 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 to as tall as 12 feet), flamboyant blossoms and, sometimes, gaudy foliage. They bloom all summer (which in the Northwest means July until frost), producing stalk after stalk of gladiola-like flowers in 2-foot-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 South American and Asian species. Modern breeding has also shrunk cannas to the point that you can now find varieties than grow only 2 to 3 feet tall and will bloom as low as 18 inches, which makes them well-suited for smaller containers and/or gardens. Of course, some of the drama is lost in the process.

To use cannas in today’s mixed border landscapes, plant them in clumps toward the middle or back of a border, and contrast them with finer-textured plants such as the many beautiful ornamental grasses 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 whether you deadhead 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 local 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.

Canna “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.

Canna “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-foot-tall plant.

Canna glauca. There are two popular hybrids in this variety: “Panache” and “Erebus.” They both have narrow gray-green foliage that is not so overpowering. Panache sports dark-pink buds that open to charming salmon-pink flowers. Erebus has salmon flowers. I’ve tried both of these, and they work well in containers (they only grow 3 feet tall), but overall, they just aren’t robust enough for my tastes.

Canna “Intrigue.” This is a super variety that has narrow purple-gray leaves and delicate orange-red flowers, and still grows 6 to 8 feet 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 and can be reached at info@sunnysidenursery.net.

Get back to the basics

Two free classes are scheduled next weekend at Sunnyside Nursery, 3915 Sunnyside Blvd., Marysville. Gardening 101 is set for 10 a.m. June 1, while Gardening 102 is planned for 11 a.m. June 2. For more information or to sign up, go to www.sunnysidenursery.net.

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