Arts & Life

Can o'Lilies – Notebook, March 2011

Written by Steve Kennedy | Feb 22, 2011 7:42 PM

My garden has only one flower. Well, not one individual plant, but one species — the canna lily.

I'm not sure where I got my first canna lilies. They are a traditional Father's Day gift in Thailand, but my children are not Thai, so that's unlikely. Probably a coworker or neighbor gave us some bulbs, and at the time I thought, how generous! After giving away boxes and bags of bulbs myself, I've realized that pure altruism is not the only motivation. But I had admired the wide green leaves and brilliant red flowers of these tall plants in other people's gardens and was glad to take them.

For a long time I was unsure of the pronunciation of the name, because about half the people I knew said "canna," and the other half said "Cana," like the Galilean town in the Gospel of John where Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding. Truth be told, I gravitated toward Cana. A flower of such showy, lush extravagance seems to naturally invite association with the miraculous, or with pleasures such as weddings and wine.

And to make things worse, Cana is suspiciously similar to the name of the Promised Land of Canaan. I have been to Galilee in the springtime, and the way this flower stands out in its surroundings is similar to the startling contrast between lush Galilee and the more arid regions around it. On top of that, lilies are associated with Easter. To say Cana for this flower just seemed natural to me.

Unfortunately for all that reason and intuition, its real name is canna, from a Celtic word for a cane or reed. It sounds to me like "can o'lilies" — much less elegant, but what can you do? Nor are they even really lilies, but are more closely related to bananas and ginger, which, like cannas, are tropical or subtropical. And that helps to explain why the canna lilies I planted last summer are not direct descendants of the ones I received a decade or so ago.

Here in the part of the world that has winter, the bulbs — actually rhizomes, or swollen underground stems — must be dug up each autumn and replanted in the spring, lest they freeze. I conscientiously did that, but one year I thought they'd store better in the barn, where it was dry, than in my damp dirt cellar. Forgetting why I dug them up in the first place, I had put them in an unheated building, and by spring they were reduced to a mushy pulp. Fortunately, it was no problem to find another coworker with bulbs to give away.

Planting cannas, for me, is an exercise in chance. Some have rounded petals; others are thinner and spiky. The former have more color; the latter are more exotic and dramatic. Some have solid green leaves; others are green in the interior but have purplish veins and edges. You never know which is going to grow out of any given bulb. If I were more dedicated, I could classify and separate them in the fall when I dig them up. But I find that the effort of digging up twice as many bulbs as I remember planting, and finding new places to plant the surplus ones or people who are willing to take an extra box off my hands, provides me as much gardening-related time as I really want at the moment.

I learned to plant cannas in a sunny spot more by error than trial. I've put them in clusters and in rows. I've placed them where I thought they'd be most aesthetic — like right outside the window so that I'd see them against a green background of lawn and trees — but they don't always grow in my preferred places, or they never bloom there because they don't get enough sun.

In the last couple of years, my canna lilies have found a regular site around the remains of a huge stump left from a storm-damaged pine tree we had to remove. It is an open, sunny spot, yet we can't mow there. We had already planted four little lilac bushes around the edges of the circular area, and I at first thought the two plants would interfere with each other. But it turns out they create a nice blooming sequence, because by the time the lilacs are done, the cannas are starting to come up. It was serendipity, not planning, that is responsible for this.

Nevertheless, I'd better watch myself. My days as a one-plant gardener may be numbered.

Published in Notebook

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