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Gardening From Southern California

by Gerald Burke
by Gerald Burke


Gerald Burke is a freelance travel and horticultural writer. He spent 35 years in the seed business, 30 of them with Burpee, and is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the North American Travel Journalists Association

March 25, 2007

If you want something that looks exotic and tropical, blooms from early spring through late fall and takes little care, get some canna bulbs and plant them now. We call them bulbs but they’re actually tubers, and whatever you call them if you’ve never grown them you’re in for an experience in the garden. Cannas vary from tall to short, six to two feet, leaves that give a tropical look in the garden with bronzy red to green leaves, closely resembling ginger and banana.

The blooms are exceptional too, with colors that include red, orange, yellow, rose, gold, and some have speckled throats, orange and pink stripes and some foliage is dark green to bronze and some are almost black. The tall ones are the most spectacular but they sometimes dwarf our low ranch style homes, and that’s where the dwarf varieties fit in well.

Some of the older cannas are still very popular and for good reason. Yellow King Humbert is mid size with yellow blooms with orange and red freckles, streaked and blotched and the foliage often shows streaks too. Over 100 years old, the variety named Richard Wallace, has yellow to orange blooms with freckles in the throat and is about four feet tall. Another tall variety, Australia, has burgundy to black leaves and orange-red blooms and gets about five feet tall. Other tall varieties to look for are Tropical Sunrise and Cleopatra.

Over the past couple of decades several dwarf cannas have come along, equally as colorful as their tall counterparts, but better suited to small lots and low homes. Among the first were the Pfitzer Hybrids and joining them are some newer ones, most getting only about two to four feet tall, still with the colorful foliage and striking blooms in many colors. Wyoming Dwarf is a 30 inch canna with golden flowers with an orange eye and foliage in bronze veined in burgundy. One of the best scarlet dwarf varieties is The President, about four feet tall with good green foliage, and the shortest I’ve ever seen is called Lucifer, with fiery red blooms and only two feet tall.

Nurseries and garden centers will have canna tubers for sale this spring and catalogs list many varieties. Once you’ve got cannas planted, you’ll have them forever, since they manage well in our Southern California climate, whether low desert, high desert, valley or coast. In cold climates canna tubers must be taken up at the end of summer, but we can leave them in the ground. They do need to be cut back to about six inches when winter weather arrives, and after a few years it’s best to divide the tubers since they reproduce well.

Cannas should be planted in full sun but they will tolerate a little shade. They don’t need any fertilizer and will grow in almost any soil, from clay to adobe to decomposed granite, as well as good soil. While they need some water in the growing season, they don’t demand much and will get along with minimal water once established. Insects and disease aren’t a problem but snails do like to chew on the foliage when it’s young and tender.

Plant the tubers slightly below the surface of the soil this month and through May and June. Cannas, especially the dwarf types, do well in large containers, and make a very good showing up against a wall or fence.

Some varieties are available from seed, but the tubers are quick to develop and grow while seed takes awhile to germinate and the plant may not bloom the first year.

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