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Gardening: Rediscover the beauty of the Canna lily

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

If you were born well after World War II, you may have just discovered Canna lilies in the past few years. I grew up with them as a child when a couple dozen of these green-leafed giants topped with bodacious red flowers lined the sidewalk next to the garage at my grandfather’s cottage on Harsens Island. To be honest, in spite of their size they didn’t blow me away, but today’s selection is another story.

It’s the fabulous foliage in stunning colors of the newer varieties that gets my attention, especially when they’re sitting in the glow of the sun.

Cannas have a lot going for them, as they are easy to grow (full sun) and pretty much disease free. Along with good looks, cannas are deer resistant and hummingbird magnets.

If there is a down side to these plants, cannas don’t bloom until summer, however their colorful foliage can carry the early show with ease. Because the newer varieties sport flamboyant leaves of bronze, near black, stripes of orange, yellows and greens or a purple tone, many gardeners grow them for foliage alone.

The good news is cannas are tender perennials so gardeners in Zone 6 and colder can over-winter them indoors. The pros recommend allowing them to be hit by frost before taking them in. Dig the clumps and carefully remove as much soil as possible. Cut the stems back to 6 inches and allow the exposed clumps to dry in a protected area for several days. They can then be stored in a bag or box filled with dry sand or Canadian peat moss in a cool dry area where the temperatures range between 40 and 50 degrees. Let them freeze and they are toast.

Cannas don’t like to be pot bound, but I suggest waiting until spring to divide them, as they are less likely to dry out and become diseased if the rhizomes are left intact over the winter. Divide up the rhizomes so each piece has at least 3 nodes to be sure they produce sizable blooms.

I researched several books and articles regarding growing and overwintering techniques and gleaned most of my information from Tony Avent’s website: plantdelights. Avent’s online catalog is filled with gorgeous varieties you won’t find in the big boxes. Here’s a link to one of his articles: plantdelights.com/blogs/articles/canna-lily-bulbs-plant-canna-lilies.

If you have friends or neighbors growing cannas now you may want to ask them if you can help empty their pots in fall and give over-wintering a try.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to Yardener.com and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnews.com/homestyle.