Cannas Add Zing to Any Garden

These structural tropical plants are turning up the heat in all sorts of gardens.

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Cannas have made a comeback. Bigtime. Once a favorite of formal and regimented Victorian plots, these structural tropical plants are turning up the heat in all sorts of gardens.

Garden centers, box stores and mail-order nurseries are offering more and more varieties to gardeners all too happy to make space in beds or containers for such vividly colored plants.

Use cannas to anchor a large bed or to introduce vertical interest. The flowers keep coming all summer long, and the plants vary in height from two to a staggering nine feet. Add that some of the newer varieties have extremely handsome foliage, and you've got a plant that is worthy of special attention in the landscape.

Though they do quite well planted in beds, cannas are also happy to grow in containers. Just be sure the container is big enough to house a mature plant and bottom-heavy enough not to be toppled by the wind. Plastic pots are probably not a good idea.

Scott Kunst, owner of Old House Gardens Heirloom Bulbs, says his company has been selling cannas "since before they were cool."

The spring 2005 catalog offers 23 varieties that have been collected from all over the world. The oldest, from 1858, is "Musifolia"; the youngest, "Bangkok," was found in 1960.

Although dahlias outsell cannas, Kunst is excited about them and is looking to add to his collection.

"The part I love about dealing with plants from the past is that once a plant falls out of fashion, there are only a few examples left," he says. "People think (cannas) are red or yellow and have green leaves and that's it. When you show them a peach-colored variety or show them one with narrow leaves, it's almost like finding some exotic deep-sea fish."

Kunst has a few favorites. "Wyoming," with glowing orange flowers, is one of the old tried-and-true varieties.

"Somehow, an orange canna is one of the worst (to people)," he says, laughing. "But there is something very elegant about it. There is something rich and dramatic. It's not gaudy and glaring like a sign on the road for discount shoes."

"Mme. Caseneuve" is a stereotype breaker, sporting pink-apricot flowers and bronze foliage. "A subtle canna, if you can believe that," he says.

"Mme. A. Martin" has pearly-bronze leaves and apricot-gold flowers. "It's not a dark-chocolately-bronze; it's a more interesting bronze. The flower has a very sunrise effect."

Despite all these beautiful choices, many gardeners don't want to grow cannas because they are not hardy. The rhizomes must be dug up and overwintered indoors.

"We say it's not a law in any state that you have to dig them up," says Kunst. "They make great compost. You spend five bucks and you get a plant as big as you are that blooms all summer. At the end of the season, it's no different than impatiens. You put it on the compost pile."

When planting in the spring, wait until the soil warms up and nightly lows average 55 degrees. Choose a sunny site where there is loose, fertile, well-drained soil. Dig shallow holes 12 to 24 inches apart, and lay the rhizomes horizontally with the eye, or sprout, pointing up. Cover with about two inches of soil, and water often.

Cannas need plenty of water. According to Kunst, this is probably where most gardeners go wrong. Water them generously each day and fertilize, too. If you're growing them in planters, make sure the pot is large enough for the plant, and keep them well-watered and fertilized. Water-absorbent gels that can be mixed with the potting soil are recommended to keep the potting medium from drying out.

The company ships cannas through the first week of May. And the warmer it is when you plant them, the faster they grow. They are true tropical plants, thriving on heat and sun. Forty-degree weather will cause them to sulk.

To keep them flowering well, it helps to pinch off the dying flowers, but it isn't necessary.

Kunst says there used to be a saying: "The only people who grow cannas don't know any better."

He hopes people are beginning to view these plants in a more positive light.

"They are very architectural. There is something nice about the whole upward flight of the plant. Everything is flowing up, reaching for the sky, erupting like fireworks."

Susan Banks can be reached at E-mail: sbanks@post-gazette.com

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service)

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