This posts picks up from last week’s on Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora. One of the exotic plants that Thornton’s writes about is “the Indian Reed”or Canna indica. Although often called a canna lily, the canna is actually a member of the ginger family [Zingiberales] along with bananas and maranta.
Although no longer rare cannas still have an exotic air even though they are actually quite hardy – especially the newer hybrids – and with flowers in the hotter part of the spectrum – predominantly red but ranging from pink, through orange to yellow – they are regularly used in ‘tropical’ bedding displays, or to add a ‘hot’ touch to a border.
Read on to find out how this American rhizome moved from being a mundane food crop to being a colourful addition to our gardens….
Cannas are native to the warmer parts of the Americas. The rhizomes have long been cultivated for food for both human and animal consumption, whilst the leaves and shoots can be used as fodder and the new shoots as a vegetable. The rhizomes are very starchy, with the granules of starch the largest known of any plant. As a result they can be used as substitute for arrowroot.
Canna are still grown for food and fodder in the Andes but their cultivation for agriculture has now spread throughout the tropics and subtropics, particularly to South East Asia and China where they are apparently used for making ‘cellophane noodles’. But that of course is not why we grow them in our gardens!
However, should you wish to have a go there’s a video clip showing you how to prepare the rhizomes ready for cooking at:
Images of cannas enter western botanic literature at the end of the 16thc. The earliest I can find is the plate of Canna indica in Florilegium Renovatum published in 1612. John Parkinson in his great florilegium of 1629, the Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, described two varieties, one yellow with red spots and the other this: “Canna Indica flore rubro. Red flowered Indian Reede. This beautiful plant riseth up with faire greene, large, broade leaves, every one rising out of the middle of the other, and are folded together, or writhed like unto a paper Coffin (as they call it) such as Comfitmakers and Grocers use, to put in their Comfits and Spices, and being spread open, another riseth from the bottome thereof, folded in the same manner, …as I have observed in mine owne garden.”
“The flowers grow at the toppe of the stalke one above another, which before their opening are long, small, round, and pointed at the end, very like unto the claw of a… Sea-Crab, and of the same red or crimson colour, but being open, are very like unto the flower of Gladiolus or Corne-flagge, but of a more orient colour than at the first, and standing in a rough huske . . . .”
“These plants grow naturally in the West Indies, from whence they were first sent into Spaine, and Portugall….We preserve them with great care in our gardens, for the beautiful aspect of their flowers.”
But although their existence in European gardens from a comparatively early date, there is very little written about them despite the fact that they are easy to propagate and cultivate.Both red and yellow canna are mentioned in Besler’s Hortus Eystadt,  and a yellow one appears in the plant lists of the Jardin Royale in Paris in 1665.
John Bartram sent 3 new species to Europe from South Carolina in the 1730s – C. speciosa, C. coccinea and C. glauca, whilst later in the century C. patens was introduced from St Helena, and in 1778 C. flaccida from the Mississippi basin. C. gigantic was introduced to Paris in 1809, and in 1813 C. sylvestris reached Dublin. Spanish botanists Ruiz and Pavon who were charged with cataloguing the plants of Chile sent several more species to Europe.John Reeves, of the East India Company, even sent a canna back from China in 1837 giving rise to the thought that the genus may have been have been indigenous there too. In fact later it was discovered that the canna had found its way there across the Pacific from America showing that the plant trade was not a one-way process.
Most of the species cannas introduced were then being grown primarily for foliage because generally they only had small flowers, but as more species were introduced perhaps not surprisingly, European nurserymen started work attempting on ‘improving’ or hybridizing them.
They succeeded in introducing large variations in foliage colour, height, and even multi-coloured flowers, although actually the large coloured part which seems to be the petal is a modified stamen or staminode. In the space of about 50 years cannas were transformed.
The first major contribution to the study of the canna came from William Roscoe, a Liverpudlian gardener, lawyer, banker, abolitionist and one of the founders of the Liverpool Botanic Gardens. [ He deserves a post all of his own one day soon].
In 1828 Roscoe compiled a book excitingly entitled Monandrian plants of the order Scitamineae.
It used the Linnean system to classify the Zingiberales order of flowering plants which is almost exclusively tropical in origin, and includes the canna lilies, arrowroot, ginger and tumeric. Now while that all might sound rather dull not only were the plants described and illustrated “chiefly drawn from living specimens in the Botanic Garden at Liverpool”, but the illustrations are beautiful and show the huge range of species then available.
The entire book can be found at:
In 1867 the French nurseryman, Emile Chaté, was the author of the first book devoted to the plant: Le Canna. He wrote that Année was: “A happy, skilful hybridiser, he operated on a great scale and thus became the creator of all the most beautiful varieties of the floral trade. All the amateurs and horticulturists who occupied themselves with foliage plants visited his garden, which he filled up each year with seedlings of Canna. We [the firm of Chaté et fils] owe him the majority of our successes. It is thanks to his councils and his friendship that we delivered to the trade so great a number of Canna innovations, and which enabled us to write this work.” Unfortunately, as with so many other plants the vast majority of Année’s new varieties have not survived, or, if they have, are unidentifiable today. The full text of Chaté’s book [in French and with no other illustrations] can be found at:
It was another French nurseryman, Antoine Crozy from Lyons who carried on Année’s work right through the second half of the 19thc. Although he had started as a rose specialist he soon switched allegiance to the canna, and set out to make what previously had been seen mainly as a foliage plant, with insignificant flowers, into one grown for its flowers as well. For nearly half a century he carried on Annee’s work, and introduced hundreds of new cultivars, including a range of dwarf ones. The Paris parks department continued to use them in annual displays and they were also used in the gardens of the gardens of the great Paris Exposition of 1867 where they were seen by William Robinson.
But it was not just in France that work on canna was being carried out. The later 19thc saw many more large flowered varieties being developed by other breeders in all over Europe and America, but also as far afield as India.
It was part of a wider new look at exotics that helped give rise to the later 19th phenomenon of the ‘tropical garden’, which I’m going to write about soon, but, for now suffice it to say that in Britain it all really got going in 1863. It was then that the first superintendent of Battersea Park, John Gibson, who had been plant hunting in South Africa and India, created the first sub-tropical garden in Battersea Park. After that all the great garden writers got in on the act. At the forefront were Shirley Hibberd and, of all people, William Robinson who is usually thought of as a proponent of the ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ garden.Robinson spent several months in Paris and in 1868 published an account of the city’s horticulture in The Parks, Promenades and Gardens of Paris. Although he writes disparagingly of the use of cannas in mass plantings rather than as single specimens or small groupings mixed with other things, he also sweepingly says that “if there were no other plants of handsome habit and graceful leaf available …but these, we need not despair for they possess almost every quality the most fastidious could desire…”
In 1871 Robinson went on to write enthusiastically more about the delights of creating tropical effects, in The Subtropical Garden, or Beauty of Form in the Flower Garden, devoting nearly 24 pages to the canna.
Hibberd, writing in 1870, argued that cannas had ‘played a conspicuous part’ in popularising sub-tropical planting schemes before adding that that there were ‘now over 150 varieties, many crosses between Canna indica, from Brazil, and Canna flaccida from the banks of the Mississippi. As a result it was ‘difficult to select from amongst them distinct and typical kinds’. [New and Rare Beautiful-Leaved Plants, 1870] His full comments can be found at:
Antoine Crozy’s work and influence were recognised outside France too, notably in Britain. In 1888 the RHS gave 70 of his new introductions First Class Certificates, and many of them are, surprisingly perhaps, still available, forming the largest single group of canna in modern catalogues. Known as the Crozy Group, they are also sometimes referred to as gladiolus flowering cannas and have “the flower spikes are arranged close together on the stalk and have narrow to medium petals. There is always space between the staminodes when arranged formally, and the labellum (lip) is smaller than the staminodes, and is often twisted or curled” [ref:cannanews.wordpress.com]
George Paul, the Cheshunt nurseryman, saw Crozy’s canna beds in the gardens of the 1890 Paris Expo and said he was “won over by the beauty of the new race” because they were “most effective and seemingly of easy culture in the open air.” In his wide-ranging article about growing and hybridising canna Paul also went on to admit that he had tried and signally failed to emulate Crozy’s success. [Gardeners Chronicle, 25 Nov 1893] The full article can be found at:
By the time he died in 1903 Crozy was nicknamed ‘Papa Canna’ and had helped make the canna perhaps the most popular garden flower in France and apparently established its place in the garden for ever. Canna cannot have been much less popular because the RHS trialled canna at Wisley between 1906 and 1908 and published more than 200 descriptions.
But swiftly as their popularity rose so it fell, and it did not really survive the decline in huge bedding out schemes and the severe shortage of labour post WWI. Nonetheless both Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll continued to use canna extensively in their planting schemes. Of course shrubs and trees which go out of fashion can sometimes easily live on in the garden but less hardy plants die out, so although some of the toughest canna varieties survived the vicissitudes of fashion, all the half hardy or tender ones simply disappeared.
The tide began turning back again in 1957 with a one-page article by Christopher Lloyd: “The Neglected Canna”. It begins “How seldom one sees cannas in English gardens nowadays!” He argued that it was “a practical plant, more practical than the popular dahlia” and went on to outline the best way of using and cultivating them.
Yet the revival of the canna’s fortunes was a slow process. Ian Cooke, in the standard work on the plant [The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Cannas, Timber Press, 2001] says that even as late as 1991 there were still only 18 species/hybrids commercially available. However, since then, interest in canna has been greatly encouraged by their use by Christopher Lloyd in his tropical garden at Great Dixter, and Will Giles in his tropical garden in Norwich. Other gardens with good displays are at Ventnor Botanic Gardens, and East Ruston in Norfolk
Commercially many more varieties are available – Hart Canna, for example, list about 100, and there is also thriving network of canna enthusiasts. And if you want to know more then a good place to start to discover more is [for once] Wikipedia which has good accounts of the botany & cultivation etc, as well as links to its of cultivars, hybridises and further references: