AMERICA'S long, if now somewhat cooled, love affair with cannas seems to have begun in 1777 in southern Louisiana, when William Bartram, the noted botanist and plant explorer from Philadelphia, first spotted the native species he called Canna indica (actually Canna flacida). In his ''Travels,'' published in London in 1792 and reprinted in a handsome facsimile edition in 1980 by the University of Virginia Press, Bartram described his hardships - the clouds of biting mosquitoes, the alligators - but then he writes glowingly about the cannas he found ''in surprising luxuriance, presenting a glorious show; the stem rises six, seven and nine feet tall, terminating upwards with spikes of scarlet flowers.''
Although I'm personally fond of cannas, not everyone shares my affection. It has been many years since they have been much in vogue. They are old-fashioned plants, more likely to be found in dooryard gardens in the South than in suburban gardens in the North. I suspect that cannas fell out of favor because of guilt by association, since they were much used in the symmetrical carpet-bedding of the 19th century, a style that was eventually rejected both here and in Great Britain in favor of a more natural style relying on hardy shrubs and perennials. The leading opponent of carpet-bedding, William Robinson, did not even mention cannas in his extremely influential book ''The English Flower Garden,'' published in 1883.
But in its heyday there was no plant more fancied by our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors than the canna. In both Europe and Great Britain, it was feverishly hybridized to bring new cultivars into being from species found in tropical islands of the Pacific and in Central and South America. Like elephant ears, fancy-leafed caladiums, castor beans, certain bamboos and potted banana plants that had to be moved to cool basements during the winter, the canna lent to gardens in the north temperate zone a touch of the exotic.
It is easy to understand the admiration for cannas. Their large leaves, which range from deep green to a brownish maroon, depending on the kind, unfurl with dramatic boldness. Their large flower trusses, in shades of pink and orange and yellow and red, are long-lasting in the garden. Each stalk, if cut back after the last pointed bud opens, will soon be replaced by a successor. Left to themselves, the flowers will be followed by bold and bristly seed pods, which are attractive, even if they do look a bit like medieval instruments of torture.
Cannas are easy to grow and remarkably immune to disease, although snails and slugs can riddle their foliage if not checked by poison bait. In the Deep South, they go dormant in late autumn, but during the winter may be successfully kept in the earth. In the Northeast, they should be kept well watered just before the first hard freeze, cut back immediately thereafter, and allowed to ripen in the ground a week or so. Then they should be dug up and dried in a sunny location before being stored for the winter in dry sand in a basement or cool closet. They may be planted outdoors in early May, about four inches deep, but fertilizer should be withheld until the plants are about six inches high. They may also be planted in wooden tubs to adorn a deck or patio.
NOTE: Inaccuracies in this report:
- Canna flaccida has yellow, not scarlet flowers.
William Robinson, ''The English Flower Garden,'' published in 1883 has almost a whole page devoted to the Canna. He and his close friend Gertrude Jekyll used Cannas extensively in their garden designs.
C. 'Ty Ty Red' is a mutation, not a seedling.