Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Red foliage cannas

I was always under the impression that early canna cultivars had green foliage, and much later crosses introduced the dark foliage; a feature that so many love in Cannas. However, my reading has revealed that cannas with red foliage have been in evidence since the early 1800's. Rubra is the Latin word for red, and we have several interesting cannas in our collection that carry that name.

The first is a species called Canna rubra (Willd.). Johnson's Dictionary of 1856 describes it has having "Red flowers indoors in December, originating from the West Indies and first introduced to England in 1820." Modern taxonomists have treated Canna rubra as being a synonym for Canna indica, and at least one authority feels that it was probably a duplication of Canna indica var. indica Warscewiczii. That same species was used by Monsieur Crozy in his development of the floriferous Crozy Group of cannas.

The earlier reference to flowering in December was due to the fact that in those days, in England, Cannas were grown indoors in glass buildings, with heat provided by coal heated stoves, hence the name given to Cannas, and other expensive tender imports, at that time of stove plants. Cannas were considered to be too tender to grow outdoors at all, and only people with wealth could consider growing them.

Rather than using glass houses, Monsieur Théodore Année and the other French hybridisers quickly adapted the technique of lifting and storing rhizomes in the winter months and growing out again next spring, once the threat of frost had receded. The rhizomes descended from Canna indica and C. glauca proved to be amenable to that process, and so we remain today. That technique is now used by most Canna growers resident in temperate zones. As we all know, Canna 'Annei; was the first canna cultivar, but Monsieur Année went on to produce many more cultivars, amongst them were some with dark foliage.

We have early records of three Foliage Group cultivars raised in the mid 1800's, the first was Canna 'Rubra Perfecta', (perfect red) raised by Théodore Année, Passy, France, EU in 1861. In Subtropical Gardening, Robinson 1868, it was described as having stems dark-red, from 5 ft. to 6½ ft. high. Leaves dark-red, rayed with purple. The flowers are of medium size, orange-red. Rootstocks are dark-red, and conical. It seeds freely.

Canna 'Rubra Superbissima' (superb red) was another new cultivar from Monsieur Année, also in 1861, and Robinson described it as having stems dark purple-red, very thick, from nearly 6 ft. to 6½ ft. high. It’s leaves are broad, round, purplish-red, with a metallic lustre. Flowers of medium size, light orange-red. The rootstocks are brownish, very thick, conical, and crowded together. It was stated to be one of the finest metallic-red-leaved Cannas. In addition, Thompson's Gardener's Assistant, edited by Thomas Moore, 1892, described it as being 5 to 6 feet in height; leaves very broad, of a rich purplish red colour, with a metallic lustre in the sun. This is a free grower, and one of the best of the red-leaved kinds. At that time in canna history the floriferous cultivars from Monsieur Crozy were the fashionable rage, so the mention is all the more remarkable as Moore obviously felt that this was an outstanding specimen.

Finally, Canna 'Rubra Nerva', (red ribbed) was raised by E. Chaté and sons, sentier Saint-Antoine, Saint-Mandé, Paris, France, EU. in 1862. It was described by Robinson as having stems dark-red, from 3½ ft. to 5 ft. high. Leaves long and narrow, lance-shaped, reflexed, dark-red rayed with purple. It had large flowers, of a cinnabar red. The rootstocks are dark-red, very long, conical, and cylindrical. Robinson went on to say that this cultivar resembles a weeping willow.

This strongly resembles our own cultivar, C. 'Russian Lance' (left), which was a seedling from C. 'Russian Red'. We are growing C. 'Russian Red' next to C. 'Rubra Superbissima' for comparison this year, as there seems to be no difference between them. We also intend to supply a specimen of the latter to the National Canna Collection, so that Keith and Christine Hayward can make a judgement as well.


  1. Le Canna - E. Chaté et fils, 1867
  2. Subtropical Gardening - Robinson 1868
  3. Thompson's Gardener's Assistant, Edited by Thomas Moore, 1892

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