Cannas – flamboyant summer stars

Queen Charlotte canna lily
Queen Charlotte canna lily

Canna lilies certainly aren’t quiet, demure residents of our summer gardens. Instead, they flash bold foliage and blowsy, gaudy flowers through many parts of the country, particularly those with consistently warm summers.

They’re members of the huge ginger family, which also includes bananas, heliconias, marantas and strelitzias (bird of paradise) — all pretty free-flowering, flamboyant characters.

Cannas are generally trouble-free — you can even ignore them, but if you take trouble over them, you’ll be rewarded.

Tropical White canna lily
Tropical White canna lily

Most like a rich, moist soil, and regular attention to grooming keeps them looking good. Remove spent stems at ground level as soon as flowers finish because they start to die at that stage, and clumps begin to look tatty and untidy.

Foliage becomes brown and withered in winter and the plant dies down.This is the time to cut the entire clump back to ground level, although in colder areas frost does much of this job. It’s also the time to divide and replant any overcrowded clumps, usually done every two to three years, depending on the vigour of your variety.

Cannas are ravenous feeders, and like all the ginger family, are greedy growers that enjoy heavy feeding in spring and summer to ensure the clump remains vigorous and at its most attractive.

Although most canna breeding has been aimed at creating spectacular, large flowers, some have been bred for dramatically coloured foliage, such as the brightly-striped ‘Tropicanna’ and the red-flowering ‘Australia’ with its matching rich, brown-red leaves.

Some gardeners dismiss cannas for being too large and greedy for space, but there are also low growing varieties like ‘Tropical White’ a mere 30cm, pretty ‘China Pink’ grows to 50cm high and cheerful, scarlet and gold ‘Queen Charlotte’ grows to only about 1m. There’s also a new, dwarf hybrid ‘Eric’ which has bronze foliage and soft pink flowers. It grows to 30cm, but can also be used as a ground cover.

If you want dramatic height, try varieties like the nodding canna (Canna iridiflora), with pendulous, watermelon-pink flowers, or the striking ‘Pfitzer’s Stadt Fellbach’ — 3m from base to flower tip, with large, loose heads of apricot-pink shading to cream-yellow at the flower centre. For another 3m giant there’s ‘Grande’, grown for its bold, red-green leaves.

It’s not easy to obtain a wide range of canna varieties —

  • try Terry Fittes’ canna nursery at 122 State Highway 1, just outside Waikanae, or
  • Russell Framsham Subtropicals, in Whangarei.