Friday, 11 January 2008

Star of the Day: Canna X 'Van Houttei'

Revelling in our current prolonged heatwave with the past eight days averaging 40 degrees C, (104 F), is one of the very early (1850s) hybrid cannas that was raised purely as a foliage plant to be grown in conservatories. It shows no sign of fading or blemishing in the blast furnace temperatures we are currently experiencing. It has however finally decided to that it's hot enough to unfurl its leaves.

Canna X 'Van Houttei' is a stunning foliage Canna unlike anything else available today. It has dark red stems, not burgundy or maroon. The big leaves grace what promises to be a tall height plant, of around 2 metres. The old literature informs that it reaches 6.5 feet and has large, (for the time when it was raised), well formed, poppy red blooms. Robinson, in his Sub Tropical Gardening published in 1879, says it is vigorous and hardy. I suppose he means hardy to cooler climates so now it looks as if we can add that is hardy to extremely hot climates as well. He adds that the rhizomes are grey, long and cylindrical. Which I vaguely remember is correct.

The undersides of the broadly lanceolate leaves, which are held on show, are the glistening colour of fresh liver. The upper surfaces of the leaves are duller and of a dark green, rayed along the veins and blushed with dark burgundy. The leaves are about 75 cms. (2.5 feet) in length. The underside is definitely more red than the maroon or brownish-green seen with most of the other dark foliaged cannas. The leaf colour shrieks its presence, putting my other dark foliaged hybrids to shame. I do hope it flowers for me as I would like to play around with some seedlings from this one.

It all seems a little ridiculous when one becomes so excited about something that was bred nearly 160 years ago. Makes one wonder what we have lost in the interim.

Here is another photo taken a week earlier than the one above. It is very slow to take off into full growth as can be seen by the surrounding cultivars in the stockbeds that were planted at the same time and have
already finished their first flush of flowers. Both photographs are completely untouched apart from resizing and in no way has the colour been altered. What you see is what you get with this treasure.

'Van Houttei' has not reached maturity yet but looks already dominates the stock beds by the very vibrancy of its leaf colour. The leaves appear very large for the height of the plant and are daily increasing in size as it strives towards the first flowering. Hopefully I will be able to post more pictures when it flowers.

This wonderful old cultivar was rediscovered in an old garden in Victoria, Australia by Raelene Cowan who very generously gave me two rhizomes, for which I will be eternally grateful. Malcolm Dalebo provided invaluable help with identification. It really is unique and he tells me it was not very hard to pin this one down with three separate descriptions. We are fortunate that very early hybrids were exceptionally well documented with detailed botanical descriptions - far better than those which flooded the market after M. Crozy made his breakthrough with the larger flowered cannas.


E. Chat
é et fils, Le Canna, 1866.
Nicholson's Dictionary of Gardening 1887.
Robinson's Sub Tropical Gardening 1879.

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