The man at the nursery baulked when I told him how many canna rhizomes I wanted: just six, please. ‘Maalis’ (gardeners) order them by the basketful. A border or bulk plant, cannas aren’t often favoured by balcony gardeners. But we’re treating our potted cannas like any other house plant.
The leaves are bold and smart, if not possessed of fluid elegance. Their definite paddle shape introduces form and firmness into the contours of your garden. There are cannas with plain green leaves and cannas with variegated leaves, or even reddish-brown leaves.
Then, of course, the canna blesses you with bunches of bright, showy flowers that keep sending up new florescence for months. Decades ago, canna flowers were restricted to red, yellow and orange. Now, new hybrids have added more shades to the canna palette, including pink and peach. They are sometimes called “canna lilies”, but of course the canna is not a lily in the true sense.
Bold and beautiful
So what if it has been called the poor man’s lily? Whether it stands in a clump or alone, it holds its head high. The canna is a bold plant. It stands with pride even in those awkward spaces we never know what to do with—until someone thinks of the canna. “Canna is a great favourite as a border plant or to fill space because it flowers so easily,” says a gardener from Delhi’s Rajdhani Nursery.
The canna isn’t fussy. Give it six hours of direct sun and a good drink, and it will give you flowers. Don’t be discouraged if you live in a cooler place, either. We’ve seen some amazing cannas growing wild in Dehradun and Kalimpong. Also, it is an unusual plant that doesn’t seem to mind getting its feet wet. You see cannas abloom even in waterlogged, low-lying areas. Indeed, the canna takes to water like a duck. What a joy, when most plants are picky about muddy feet!
Tall cannas are the more common variety. However, all along Delhi’s Shanti Path, you’ll find delightful dwarf cannas, barely a couple of feet high. Less intrusive, they also look less straggly than the counterparts that grow 4-5ft high. With compact, definite, bright red and perky yellow flowers, these dwarfs also seem to show less of their deadheads. However, Delhi-based gardener Mohan Singh suggests deadheading regularly anyway: “Deadheading encourages new flowers. It also looks neater. You can also remove seed pods for more flowers.”
Buying rhizomes? Look for the larger ones. Note the number of eyes on each. The more, the better. If you’re planting canna for the first time, worry not. Just nest them, laying the longish rhizome flat across the soil, about 3 inches below the ground; sprinkle water. Ask the folks at the nursery for advice on the distance between rhizomes—it often depends on the variety of canna you pick up.
Keep the soil moist, not wet. You don’t want the young stem to rot away. Once the stalk pushes up, it’s time for a thorough drenching.
I was advised to feed my cannas monthly—unlike most other plants, which get fed fortnightly—although the ones in the wild bloom happily without help! We opted for organic fertilizer. Since we planted the rhizomes in home-made compost, they enjoyed nutrients, released regularly, for some time. After that, feed it and forget it—until the flowers catch your eye. The canna is fuss-free and disease-resistant.
One way to know if your canna could do with more water is to look at the leaves. A well-watered canna will have robust, green leaves that maintain their shape. A thirsty canna cannot send out as much moisture to the leaves; they will look dry and tear easily.
More to come
Cannas proliferate fast. That’s why our six rhizomes ought to make our balcony rich enough in colour and personality in about a year. There’s this charming story of the Horn Canna Farm in the US. They’ve been growing cannas professionally for three generations stretching across about eight decades! It all began, apparently, with just a few bulbs that were given to them as a gift. Their farm now covers 120 acres! That’s giving me ideas.
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The author is a journalist and writer of children’s books, with a passion for gardening.
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