Tropical plants are changing the palette and character of summer gardens, and lush, leafy canna lilies are leading the charge.
"Cannas have always been the most popular tropical plant in Northern gardens," says James Waddick, a Kansas City gardener who grows many cannas in his own back yard. "They grow fast, and they have great foliage and wonderful flowers. But what makes them big now — it's the new tropicalismo."
All cannas have broad, pointed leaves that unfurl gracefully; flowers shoot up from the tops of the plants. Hummingbirds love these flowers. ‘Pretoria’ is a flashy canna with orange blooms and bright green-and-yellow-striped leaves; ‘Bronze Beauty’ has deep wine-red foliage and red flowers. Brightest of all are the red flowers of ‘The President.’
"Cannas are big and bold and easy to grow," says Claire Sawyers, director of the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, just outside Philadelphia. The college arboretum is designed to give home gardeners ideas, and cannas of every stripe have been featured in nearly 100 large pots and planters on the campus.
Cannas fit right in, no matter what kind of garden you have. Victorian gardeners used cannas with a flourish, growing them like fantastic green geysers at the center of elaborate annual flowerbeds. The great English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll depended on cannas to give her late-summer landscapes a lift. The American garden designer James Van Sweden, whose sophisticated garden designs reach the peak of their color and drama toward the end of the season, also weaves cannas into his designs.
Most gardeners grow cannas from rhizomes, which can be planted in spring as soon as it's comfortable to be in the garden in shirtsleeves. They need a sunny spot but are not particular about soil. As long as they receive plenty of moisture, they will flourish. The big leaves and calypso colors hold up through the heat of summer. They thrive in heat, bloom until frost, and need little care. Plant a few cannas this year, and let them do their stuff.