Documents: Container & Small Space Gardening:

Cannas get Extreme Makeover: Foliage Edition

Colorful leaves, versatility put this forgotten wall flower back on center stage
by Laurie Riedman
May 1, 2011

Cannas – once the tired, tall fillers relinquished to the back of the bed – have now become the “it” plants in containers and landscapes.

After all, you can hardly pick up a glossy garden magazine these days without seeing their large, colorful, tropical leaves adorning entryways and patios.

Cannas – in particular the colorfully foliaged Tropicanna® cannas developed by Tesselaar Plants – have also been celebrated on popular blogs like Garden Rant and North Coast Gardening and image sharing sites like Flickr. And when Fine Gardening magazine revealed its 2009 container gardening contest winners last year, three out of the seven finalists had used Tropicanna cannas!

The reason? Call it Extreme Makeover: Foliage Edition.

Fancying new foliage

“There really wasn’t much of anything new in the world of cannas until 1997,” says Jim Threadgill, president and owner of Willow Creek Gardens, a California-based online gardening store that sells Tropicanna and other brands of this large-leaved, tropical with lilylike blooms (see “Where to find Tropicanna cannas”). “That’s when Tesselaar Plants led a canna foliage revolution with its introduction of the rainbow-variegated, tangerine-bloomed Tropicanna. Itshowed the consumer there was something more to cannas than the regular, green-leaved version, and since then canna sales have risen every year.”

Agreeing with Threadgill is Nicholas Staddon, horticulturalist and plant specialist with Monrovia, the nation’s leading grower of premium ornamental and edible plants. “Cannas fell out of favor for decades,” says Staddon, “until Tesselaar introduced Tropicanna and marketed the canna back to popularity again with selections for exotic foliage color.”

Tesselaar soon followed up the original Tropicanna cannas (rated #1 by members of revered online gardening community Dave’s Garden) with Tropicanna Gold (featuring gold-striped leaves and yellow/orange blooms) and Tropicanna Black (with dark purple-black leaves and coral-red blooms). “Interest increased exponentially,” says Threadgill. “This year, especially, everyone’s excited about Tropicanna Black.”

Featuring exotic, dark, dramatic leaves and the ability to thrive in the shade (uncommon for cannas), Tropicanna Black (at right, with Tropicanna Gold in the background) will be widely available to the market for the first time this gardening season. And passionate gardeners are more than ready, with a demand for dark foliage at an all-time high. “Even though Tropicanna Black has been on the market a number of years, we held it back for a while because of propagation issues,” says Anthony Tesselaar, cofounder and president of the Australia-based Tesselaar Plants. “Now that people know they can get their hands on it, it’s causing quite a stir in the garden centers.”

In fact, Staddon featured the plant –front and center –in the Monrovia display this past summer at the annual Garden Writers Symposium in Dallas. “Black is a real hip color in the garden,” he explains in a video Tesselaar made there featuring Tropicanna Black (see “Image/Video Links,” below). “It’s all about using this dark foliage to set off other colors – yellow-greens, blue-greens, variegated foliage and reds in particular.”

Plus, he points out: “It loves to be in shade or dappled shade, which is really unusual for a canna.” Although it won’t produce quite as many blooms in the shade, notes Staddon, that’s where Tropicanna Black’s foliage really turns heads – turning an even darker, more exotic-looking purplish-black.

Canna comeback contributors

How cannas – a full-blown craze during the Victorian era – ever got passed over in the first place remains a mystery, since they’re such dependable, beautiful, versatile workhorses.

“They’re just as comfortable – and dazzling – in water gardens and bogs as they are in frying-pan-hot, low-water locations or rock-hard, compacted soil,” says Anthony Tesselaar. “And not only have they emerged as a favorite “thriller” in the classic thriller-filler-spiller approach to mixed planters, a lot of landscapers are planting them en masse for big blocks of season-long, easy-to-see color.”

But it’s that combination of versatility and value – especially in a slow economy, when every dollar counts – that has really helped to thrust cannas into the spotlight. “You don’t have to wait for it to flower,” says Threadgill. “You can just put it in the garden or a pot and it looks good right away.”

And you can’t discount that good ol’ desire for instant gratification. “Colorful foliage looks good on the shelf, just like blooming tulips do, so that’s what gets put in the cart,” says Threadgill. Especially in cold climates, he adds, people don’t want to wait for color or interest any longer than they have to. “Big, colorful foliage is also what gets noticed in front yards. People drive by and want some of that, too.”

Threadgill also credits the canna comeback to a change in attitudes toward growing tropical or tender “temperennials” in colder climates. Northern gardeners who once shied away from overwintering of these tender, subtropical rhizomes are now more than willing to transfer their pots from patio to basement in late fall and bring them back out in spring. So welcome back, cannas! It’s your day in the sun!

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