Thursday, September 3, 2009

A case of mistaken canna identity

I lost some of my cannas in the Narnia-like everlasting winter of 2008/2009. Like most other London gardeners with sub-tropical plants, I'd got a bit blasé about wrapping them up, and keeping them dry and all that sort of thing. (Not any more, I hasten to add.) It didn't seem to be the cold so much as a combination of cold and damp that killed them, as those that were in the sunniest spots survived.
So when spring finally arrived, I was keen to replace them. Many of the specimens I saw on sale in garden centres looked tatty and virus-ridden, so I was thrilled when I came across some really healthy-looking young plants at Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society's garden and plant centre in Surrey.
They were labelled "Canna indica" but I was fairly confident that I knew what they were. One was Canna 'Phaison', or 'Tropicana' or 'Durban', which - as far as I know - is the same plant. It's a variegated sport of 'Wyoming' with orange flowers and flamboyant burgundy, red and green striped leaves. The other appeared to be Canna striata, or 'Bengal Tiger' or 'Pretoria', which has flamboyant green and yellow stripey leaves. (In my view, if you're going to have cannas, you might as well have the in-your-face kind.)
I got them home, potted them up and waited for the 'Pretoria', the green and yellow striped one to shoot up to its normal majestic height of over six feet. I waited and waited. Then, just before the garden opening last Sunday, it finally produced a flower. It was bright yellow, and rather attractive, with reddish buds that made a nice contrast with the yellow. But it was not more than four feet high.
As far as I can tell from surfing on the internet, it is Canna 'Trinacria Variegata', which is also known as 'Bangkok', 'Christ's Light', 'King of Siam', 'Minerva', 'Nirvana' and ... oh, I can't be bothered to type out the whole list.
There are two really irritating things about cannas. One, as you can see, is that they all seem to have at least three or four aliases, depending on what country you find them in. The other is, despite this multiple personality disorder, the growers insist on labelling them merely as "Canna indica". Even if you have some clue as to what you're looking for, you can easily be caught out.
I don't mind the different names, as at least that is identification. But the idea that you might want to buy a plant without knowing its eventual height, its colour and its habit seems to me most bizarre. After all, you don't go into a home furnishings shop and say you want a cushion, any size, any colour, any fabric. So why do growers think we might be less discriminating about what we put in our gardens?
By the way, if you're wondering about the other cannas I bought, they haven't flowered yet, though the foliage looks spectacular. And I have two more yet to flower with dark maroon leaves. What colour will they be, I wonder?

The replacement canna, which I think is C. 'Trinacria Variegata'. It's a perfectly lovely plant, but because it's not as tall as 'Pretoria', it has failed to mask the fence behind it. Never mind, there is a Trachylospermum jasminoides (Confederate jasmine) growing on that fence and hopefully by next year, it will have covered it. Next year, everything will be perfect...

The spectacular orange flowers of C. 'Pretoria', aka known as ... oh, never mind. Below, the plant in its full glory. Now I can compare the leaves, I can see that the foliage is quite, quite different from the replacement. Oh yes ...

This is the border where the yellow-flowered cannas are. In a bid to distract visitors from the lack of interest going on at the back, I decided at the last minute to put in some Oriental lilies at the front. I planted them next to the yuccas (Y. gloriosa 'Variegata') as I thought this might prevent them from being eaten by squirrels. To my delight, this worked: squirrels seem to dislike being stabbed in the rear by a yucca as much as I do.
However, the yuccas haven't managed to frighten away the lily beetles, as I found one the other day. I think I may have to settle for growing lilies as annuals. They're not that expensive, but it just seems such a waste. I hate lily beetles. Almost as much as I hate people who don't label cannas.