Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My Grandmother's Canna Lilies

“Weeds are simply not allowed to grow [in her garden],” a newspaper article, circa 1950, said of my grandmother, Chessie Pearce. The article went on to report that she “has been most generous in giving cuttings and plants to her neighbors.”    

My grandmother loved to garden. In spite of living on a small family farm on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, she managed to amass an interesting collection of flowering plants. Her cannas were among my favorites. She grew two varieties: one bearing spiky red blossoms above chocolate-tinged foliage, and the other, green-leaved, boasting bright yellow petals with orange speckles.

My red canna: a hummingbird favorite

When I was a child my grandmother’s canna lilies grew so prolifically that even extras she disposed of in a swampy area beside a wide ditch grew tall and produced flowers. Cannas hanker for rich, moist soil and she provided it.
My yellow canna

After my grandmother died, her cannas lived on.  My mother planted some beneath our living room windows. While waiting for the school bus during the autumn mornings of my teen years, I watched hummingbirds drink nectar from the red flowers.

Flash forward many years. After I bought the house where I now live, my mother dug up rhizomes from my grandmother’s cannas and gave them to me to plant. I didn’t have much success at first. The plants survived, but didn’t thrive. Some years no blooms appeared. One year, leaf-curlers attacked the canna lilies. The next year I dug up the rhizomes and moved them from my sunbaked backyard to a circular bed shaded by the live oak out front. In the new location, leaves rose from the ground; while yellow flowers rarely appeared, the red ones never did.

Over the years I gave canna rhizomes to friends. The resulting plants performed well, blooming beautifully. Clearly, my friends have less sandy soil than I do.

Two summers ago I created a new flowerbed in the backyard and transplanted several of the cannas into it. Much to my delight, both the red and the yellow cannas gained height and bloomed. Soon a hummingbird noticed the spiky red flowers.

On Rokko Island, Kobe, Japan 

What I’ve failed to mention, up until this point, is that for years and years I searched for, but did not find, cannas that looked like the ones my grandmother grew. I’m not sure why I felt the need to find their counterparts, but I did. My quest to find the red and the yellow cannas continued as I scoured plant nurseries and public or private gardens. Every summer I scrutinized cannas growing in the town where I live, and in places where I traveled, but any red cannas I saw had solid green leaves or the flowers weren’t spiky. Many of the cannas growing in public places had orange or salmon colored blossoms.

Inverewe Gardens: Tropical foliage in the Scottish Highlands

Then, in July of 2010 while visiting family on Japan’s Rokko Island, I discovered the familiar yellow canna in front of a multi-family residence. Two months later I came across the spiky red canna with the chocolate tinged leaves at Inverewe Gardens in the Scottish Highlands.

The yellow canna cultivated by a gardener
on Japan's Rokko Island
The red cannas at Inverewe Gardens, 
a National Trust for Scotland property 

Now I have in my garden a third variety of canna lily. Last year during the Charleston Horticultural Society's annual plant sale, known as Plantasia, I bought an orange flowered canna with variegated, striped leaves. My Internet research indicates this variety is called Bengal Tiger.

How I wish I could have shared the Bengal Tiger with my grandmother. She would have adored its gorgeous tropical foliage.

The foliage behind this orange canna flower belongs to the variety with the spiky red flowers.

And this gorgeous leaf belongs to the orange flowered canna shown in the above photograph.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Highland Garden

Each morning during late August of 2005, as I devoured poached eggs on toast and British bacon in the dining room of the Old Manse Guest House, I gazed across Loch Carron.  On the opposite side of the water, to the southeast of where I sat, lies Attadale Estate. The hues of its landscape changed often as clouds broke apart to allow the sunshine through or as mist transformed into steady rain.
The view across Loch Carron to Attadale Estate
While doing pre-trip research I had come upon the Attadale Estate website and, as a result, I knew the property included gardens open to the public and I knew of the fairly recent acquisition of a large fern collection.

If I could have walked straight across the loch from the B&B, I might have had enough stamina to get to Attadale by foot, but I had just completed six and a half weeks of radiation therapy and wasn’t fit enough to hike the more than seven miles, one way, around the sea loch.

In those days the village of Lochcarron still had a local taxi service. From the phone box in front of the village hall, I called the driver. The phone kept disconnecting and each time I reached her, I spoke at rapid speed, hoping to get across enough information to enable her to find me. When she arrived, I continued in revved up mode, but she remained tranquil and told me you can always tell when people are from town: they’re in a hurry. “On Lewis where I grew up, we say, ‘It’ll get done tomorrow – if it has to.’”
The exterior of the Estate owners' home was used
 as Major Maclean's residence  in the television series Hamish Macbeth
In 2005 I hadn’t yet converted to digital photography. My film supply was limited and I was stingy with each available 35 mm frame. As I look back through my small group of Attadale photographs, I am disappointed in the quality of the photos, but I’m even more disappointed in the omissions – the photographs I did not attempt. I clearly recall sitting in the Japanese garden, writing in my journal, and watching a white haired woman wearing tartan trousers trim a sculpted shrub. And according to my journal, “On the edge of the kitchen garden a yellow-beaked blackbird perched in a fuchsia bush and ate the fruit of the flower.” I remember walking through rows of vegetable beds.  Yet I have no photographic evidence of the Japanese and kitchen gardens.

My notes indicate a rhododendron dell and also a scenic overlook with a view of the house and the loch and the hills beyond and I recall that the grounds included a DIY/honor system tearoom as well as an area where garden visitors could purchase plants.

When a sudden rain shower erupted, I took shelter in a small geodesic dome that housed part of the fern collection, but mostly I hurried through the gardens far too quickly that afternoon. Having scheduled a time for the taxi to return, I didn’t want to keep the driver waiting. 

Seven years later, I much regret my haste.  In April of this year I spent parts of four days in Plockton, at the other end of the loch, doing volunteer work for the National Trust for Scotland, yet during my trip I had neither time nor opportunity to visit Attadale Gardens, even though the A890 road had just reopened after being closed for four months due to a rockslide.

By the way, Attadale Estate has its own train stop on the scenic Inverness to Kyle line. If you visit by train, just be sure to request a stop. And, of course, come back here and share your experience.


The Attadale house shows up in episodes of the television series Hamish MacBeth. The series DVDs can often be found in bookshops and libraries.