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.