Dear Readers, I was so taken by the range of Canna Lily cultivars on show at the cemetery last week that I thought I’d try to find out a bit more about them. The first thing to say is that they are not members of the lily family at all: there have been lots of arguments about what they actually are, but at the moment they are in their own family, the Cannaceae, which is in the order Zingiberales. In plain English this means that their closest relatives are plants such as ginger, banana, arrowroot, heliconia and birds of paradise. What splendid plants they are! It is generally now agreed that there are twelve actual wild species of Canna, and many, many cultivars, as you’ll see from the photos here.
Canna are New World plants, with species growing from the southern USA down to northern Argentina. They need 6-8 hours of sunlight per day to thrive, and in most temperate areas the rhizomes are lifted over winter, or protected in some other way. Wild plants can grow to a height of 2-3 metres, but the garden varieties are generally much smaller.
What surprised me most when researching this piece is the extraordinary range of uses to which Canna Lilies have been put, not just in their native range, but across the world. I had thought that its primary use was as an ornamental, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Canna indica, or Achira, is an example of a wild Canna Lily that comes originally from South and Central America, but is naturalised much more widely. Its starchy roots have been used for food by indigenous peoples for millennia, and it was also used by the Spanish colonists. In a totally unexpected twist, it was much admired by the people of China and was planted as an ornamental food crop, with the roots being used to provide much needed sustenance during the Great Chinese Famine of the 1950s and 1960s. Since then it has been very widely planted as a source of starch, noodles, white wine and ethanol, largely because the pests that eat it in its native range are absent from China. The Chinese are also combining starch from the plant with polyethylene to make biodegradable plastic.
Across its native range, all parts of the plant have been used for human or animal consumption, with the leaves being used as fodder, the shoots as a vegetable, and the young seeds as an addition to tortilla. In Vietnam the starch from the Canna Lily is used to make cellophane noodles known as miēn dong.
In other countries to which it has been introduced, however, Canna indica has become a rampant plant pest, especially in South Africa and in some of the Pacific Islands.
Canna indica/Achira (Photo One)
The seeds of the Canna Lily have been put to various uses. They have been turned into jewellery, and have formed elements of various musical instruments, such as the Kayamba, from Réunion. This type of instrument is known as an idiophone, and is formed of tubes made from sugar cane or bamboo filled with seeds, in this case from the Canna Lily.
The seeds are also said to produce a purple dye.
A kayamba (Photo Two)
Medicinally, Canna is used for such a huge range of complaints, from bruises and cuts in Nigeria to fever in Gabon, from whooping cough in the Congo to painful breasts in Côte d’Ivoire, from dropsy in India to headaches in South East Asia. Note that all of these uses are from countries where Canna Lily is not native. In Costa Rica the plant is used as a diuretic, and in South America it also has an association with the treatment of various ‘women’s problems’.
Canna has also played an important role in the detoxification of wetland habitats – in a Turkish experiment documented in the magazine ‘Environment International’, Canna was found to remove 98% of the ammonia nitrogen in the waste water set up during a period of one year. There is clearly much more to this stunning plant than just its looks.
In the wild, Canna Lilies have very specific relationships with a whole range of pollinators, varying from hummingbirds and bats in their native range to sunbirds in Africa. They also form alliances with bees, who need to use a technique similar to buzz pollination in order to get the pollen to be released. Sadly, in the UK they seem to be bereft of insect visitors (though do let me know if you’ve spotted any) – the red, coral, orange and yellow colours of the flowers, while undoubtedly enhanced by cultivation, generally indicate that the plant is trying to attract birds rather than insects.
This isn’t to say that they are unloved by all invertebrates though: as mentioned a few weeks ago, I was very intrigued by this leaf damage on a Canna Lily. Then someone helpfully explained that it was the result of a snail or slug nibbling a hole in the leaf while it was still curled up.
In the New World Canna Lilies are much molested by the Larger Canna Leafroller (Calpodes ethlius). As the name suggests, the caterpillars of the butterfly roll the leaves around themselves and then secure the ‘nest’ with thread. Apparently this damage can be ‘distressing to the gardener’. The butterfly also lays its eggs on related species such as arrowroot, which I imagine is also distressing to the farmer.
Larger Canna Leafroller (Photo Three)
It comes as no surprise to me either that Georgia O’Keefe became fascinated by the flowers of the Canna Lilies that she saw when she visited Lake George, New York with Arthur Stieglitz in 1918. These paintings were seen by many male art critics as being depictions of female genitalia, something that made O’Keefe herself extremely cross:
“Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.”
I just think that the pictures are beautiful. it’s also very interesting to see O’Keefe’s style change between from a fairly literal interpretation in 1919 to the glorious semi-abstraction of 1924.
Red Canna (1919) by Georgia O’Keefe (Photo Four)
Red Canna by Georgia O’Keefe (Photo Five)
And finally, a poem. I think this sums up the manic, over-the-top quality of cannas – they always seem a little bit too much to me, with their stripy leaves and their sunset-coloured flowers. I would love to see them ‘slurped by ruby-throats’, a kind of hummingbird, as in Diane Dees poem. I found it on the Old House Gardens website, where there are lots of rather lovely things to peruse.
“Canna Mania,” by Diane Dees
(for Scott K.)
Antique cannas startle me in the garden.
Bold leaves of bronze, olive finely striped,
green blades with vermillion veins, paint-box
blooms of sunrise and sunset, peaches and melons.
Watermelon-red slurped by ruby-throats
buzzing frantically around ancient rind.
Scarlet/yellow harlequin pinwheel,
random pats of butter streaked by Devon cream,
technicolor leopard skin,
lozenges of orange, orpiment flames.
sometimes Monet, often Rothko;
Victorian madness, sprouting across time,
mine for the price of a rhizome
Photo One by Stephencdickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60599502
Photo Two By David Monniaux – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=308520
Photo Three By leppyone – Brazilian Skipper, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3628100
Photo Four By Georgia O’Keeffe – High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55040866
Photo Five By Georgia O’Keeffe – http://www.georgiaokeeffe.net/images/paintings/red-canna.jpg, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52866553