Soule Garden: Cannas are 'all of the above,' and then some - The Explorer: El Sol

Soule Garden: Cannas are 'all of the above,' and then some

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Posted: Tuesday, July 6, 2010 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:06 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Cannas are (circle all that apply) colorful, tropical, large-flowered, bold, brash, bright, sometimes gaudy, glorious, short or tall, a glorious garden plant. I hope you circled them all, because cannas are all the above. Plus very delightful and very variable.

If you have an entirely desert landscape, cannas won't look right in your landscape. But, if you are like most of us, and have an oasis zone in your xeriscape, then cannas will fit right in. The broad flat leaves that are such a feature of this plant are typically solid green, but some cultivars have maroon, bronzy, or even enchantingly variegated (striped) leaves.

Also fascinating is how the leaves emerge. They grow out of a stem in a long tapering roll and once fully grown, they unfurl.

While the leaves are wonderfully striking, the flowers are stunning. Almost like a living tiki torch, the flame-colored flowers appear on a long-lasting spike. Individual flowers sequentially grow in an upwards spiral in vivid hues of crimson, scarlet, golden, yellow, orange, or a sunrise blend of all of these colors. The canna flowers are unique in all the plant kingdom, thus cannas have been given their own family, with a bare 19 species (but countless horticultural cultivars.) Occasionally called "canna lilies," they are not lilies at all, instead are more closely related to ginger.

Technically, canna plants are herbs. Tropical and subtropical perennial herbs that die back to the ground every winter in the Old Pueblo. They also come back every spring from their specialized underground storage stem called a rhizome. Rhizomes are also found in their cousin ginger. Ginger rhizomes are the part you buy to eat from the supermarket. But don't eat your cannas, they are toxic.

Cannas grow best in full sun to afternoon shade. Provide moderate water. Plant in well drained, rich to slightly sandy soil. Cannas do well in containers, but be sure to select the right pot for the final size of the variety you have. The large leaves can act like a sail, and too small a pot can tip over in high wind.

Along with looking good in the garden, cannas have many uses. Originally from the New World, they were quickly spread around the globe by early explorers. Thus a canna in the garden connects you with many different cultures. Seeds are used for a purple dye and as beads in jewelry, and as the mobile elements of the kayamb, a musical instrument from Réunion, as well as the hosho, a gourd rattle from Zimbabwe. In more remote regions of India, cannas are fermented to produce alcohol. The plant yields both stem fibers used as a jute substitute and leaf fibers used for making paper.

Smoke from the burning leaves is said to be insecticidal. Cannas are used to extract many undesirable pollutants in a wetland environment, as they have a high tolerance to contaminants. In Vietnam, edible canna is called dong rieng, and its starch is used to make cellophane noodles known as mien dong. In Thailand, cannas are a traditional gift for Father's Day. One species (Canna edulis) is the source of easily digested arrowroot starch.

The name "canna" was given to the plant by Linnaeus, a European botanist and originates from the Celtic word for a cane or reed.

I enjoy my cannas for their color, their lush leaves, and for the fact that with cannas, I have a piece of cultures from all around the world in my own backyard.

Jacqueline has been writing about gardening in the Southwest for close to three decades. She is currently working on a book on growing and using the herbs of Father Kino's Mission Gardens.

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