Add a Flower that Traveled the World

What is A Canna Lily-How Can I Grow It?

The Cana Lily is an exotic accent for any garden and a unique opportunity for a gardener in any climate to enjoy an exotic tropical accent. A tall perennial grown from a rhizome, it has colorful, swirling foliage and large iris-like flowers.

The combinations of colors in both foliage and flower are virtually endless. For northern gardeners, the rhizomes are easy to store for the coldest winter. The plants are low maintenance in sunny spots in the ground or in containers.

For us, in the near tropics, they bloom all year. We love the flowers, but the foliage is so attractive that if the plant misses a day of flowering, we don’t mind.

Canna Lillies-Their History-How We Got Them

There is a lot of fantasy in horticulture. Again, the plant is not what it is called! It is not a lily; it is a genus of 10 species, and they are related to ginger.

It originated in Latin America and was one of the earliest cultivated food crops (a source of starch). In Europe, it appears in 1629 in John Parkinson’s book, “Great Florilegium.” It did not become popular, however, until the 1850s. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it was shown in quantity and was a big hit!

The Canna Lily, when initially found, had impressive foliage but relatively insignificant flowers. Horticultural breeding produced the extravagant variety of blossoms we see today. This might also explain the delay in its popularity.

Canna lily with red striped foliage and tangerine blooms, an exotic accent for any garden.
Drama in Flower and Foliage

Before it became so popular, it reached Asia, including India. This confused the issue mightily and caused people to look for its origins there.

Some of the early traders who handled the plant were from Spain and Portugal. Starting with the adventures of Vasco da Gama about 1500, the Portuguese maintained a vigorous spice trade along the Coromandel Coast of India. So, this might make sense.

Canna Lily Data at A Glance

ATTRIBUTES tall tropical perennial
COLOR Many options, colors, and patterns in both flower and foliage bloom bloom bloom
BLOOM time lost most Most of the summer will bloom in high heat and humidity
LIGHT CONDITIONS Full Sun, 4 hrs, min
SOIL Moist, rich soil
WATER regular moisture

Fashion In the Garden

The Canna is a plant that has been in and out of fashion for varying periods. The Victorians found them exotic and a beautiful symbol of an age of exploration. They were helped because any gardener could create a tropical vibe wherever they stuck a shovel in the soil.

In our warm climate, we expect to see them everywhere. We visited Blenheim Palace and saw them displayed in a Victorian-era water garden in pots at the pond corners. You could enjoy them while drinking coffee on a terrace and feeding tame pheasants. We could all enjoy them on our decks, but I’m not sure about the tame pheasants!

As the twentieth century appeared, garden tastes turned to domestic plants from earlier periods. This incorporated a desire for older style colors in the pastel ranges. The Canna became like bell bottoms or big shoulders. People made a little fun of them. Now they are back with a vengeance, available in tremendous variety and easy to deal with.

Sizes And Varieties

Heights will vary from the dwarf varieties starting at 2′ to as tall as 8′. They can form dense clumps. The dwarf varieties make excellent tall container displays.

The colors of the flowers range from pastel to nearly black; they will vary from subtle to neon. The foliage will include combinations like purple/burgundy, blue/green, and chartreuse/gold. Stripes are often a feature.

This canna lily blooms in pastel pink on stalks and leaves of soft green. It is an exotic accent for any garden.
A Pastel Example with Blue-Green Foliage

How to Buy Them

Cannas will be offered to you in two ways- bare rhizomes or potted plants.


This is a continuously growing underground stem; you will see roots growing from it. They should be chunky and firm to the touch with visible eyes. It is important to keep them labeled unless you like surprises.

Plants in Pots

These have the advantage of showing you the actual colors of foliage and perhaps the flower.

If you order them online, order early and deal with a reputable company with a guarantee. As soon as they arrive open the package and look them over. This article includes a list of dealers offering summer blooming bulbs.

How Can I Use Cana Lilies

These are tall and stately plants, eye-catching planted in mass or as focal points in pots. They can provide a dense privacy barrier if needed.

  • Background for other plants, canna can appear “top-heavy” low plantings are attractive before them.
  • Create Visual barriers, even in narrow spaces. (may need staking).
  • A tropical background for clipped hedges.
  • Center or back of mixed container plantings.
  • On pool or patio lounge areas to create a tropical feel.

How to plant them

Plant the rhizomes horizontally, about 4″ deep and 1-2′ apart. They thrive in organic-rich soil. Add compost to the soil. Water the plants well and wait about a week to repeat the water. They are reasonably drought tolerant and overwatering can rot the young rhizomes. Feed them monthly, using 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 fertilizer.

When To Plant

IN zones 8-10, plant anytime. In northern zones, plant once the soil is 60 degrees.

Caring for Cannas

Keeping them looking good: They are fine without extra care, but a little trimming helps them look their best.

When the flower is finished, look for swelling in the flower sheath under the inflorescence. That is a second blossom. (They can have three.) In this case, cut only the actual spent flower.

If there are no flowers left you can cut off the entire sheath. When that whole stem is finished blooming, and no flower buds are left, cut off the stem near the ground. This little extra effort will encourage new growth. The plant will pay you back with a vigorous long season of color.

Companion Plants

In temperate climates, you can intersperse the bulbs of various seasons, crocus and tulips can proceed to the later blooming cannas. Consider combining the blooming cannas with grasses, lantana, zinnia, snapdragon, daylilies, coneflowers, and elephant ears.

Gardening In Your Zone

Cannas are hardy in zones 8-12. They will be attractive for 12 months, separating every 3-5 years. You will know they are overdue for separation if the center begins to die off.

How to Separate Them
  1. Choose a time when they are not blooming- if you are going to store them for the winter, the end of the bloom season is perfect.
  2. Cut back the greenery to a few inches above the ground. It will regrow promptly.
  3. Wipe off the soil.
  4. Break or cut the rhizomes with a sharp knife or spade.
  5. Allow them to dry for 24 hours and replant or store in a cool place for the winter. Check them periodically and remove any which have softened.

Pests and Diseases

These are sturdy, low-maintenance plants. But there are always enemies…

Leaf Rollers-3/4″ inch long with an orange head, they become moths and eat the leaves. If you spot them early, and there are few, pick them off and drop them in a bucket of soapy water. If doom is near, use Bacillus thuringiensis, which paralyzes the digestive system of the leaf roller.

Snails and Slugs-they will leave holes in the leaves. Water with soap or salt should be discouraging.

Aphids-are tiny and nasty. Try to squish them, wash them off with the hose, or use an insecticide as the last choice.

How About An Example

We are using a variety called Australia; it has plentiful red blooms and foliage of almost black reddish-brown. In our climate, they bloom steadily. Their companions are Croton with red and pink highlights on the green and yellow foliage and red hibiscus.

There are lots of choices. Try them!

This is a cold climate view of Canna Lilies written by the University of Minnesota Extension service.