Tag Archives: canna lilies

I cannae do cannas, myself

I am really not a fan of canna lilies. We only have one in our garden, which I assume is Canna Tropicana but I don’t love it enough to give it a prized position in order to star. I find them a bit coarse, lacking any element of refinement. And they don’t die down gracefully at the end of the season. There are many other plants we prefer that we can use for the tropical look in our climate.

But the fact that I don’t want to grow them myself does not stop me from seeing their merits elsewhere. Down the road, so to speak – as in maybe 5km and a couple of road changes down the road – is a fine patch of red cannas that I admired all last summer each time I passed. They are very… bold. And undeniably cheerful. When passing in a car, they are bright enough to catch my eye every time and they do appear to have a long season in flower. Pat, who owns these, offered me some when I stopped to photograph them yesterday, but I declined. I get my pleasure from looking at them in her garden.

If you are going to grow them, my advice would be to plant them in blocks of a single colour for maximum effect. I did not realise until I looked them up to get their species name that they are edible. My cursory study of them indicated that it is the tubers you eat, not the flowers. They are Canna indica, not lilies at all, but that is probably no surprise. Their widespread natural habitat takes in large parts of South and Central America, stretching up into the southern states of USA.

Cannas are a mainstay of the summer plantings at the Te Henui cemetery. Mercifully, Cemetery Sue who leads the team of volunteers who tend those gardens, has kept the colours separate.

Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens also uses big plantings of cannas in their summer herbaceous displays. Some of these are better than others. The symphony in pink was, I thought, charming on the day. The garish stripes in primary colours, not so much. 


Late summer inspirations from the graveyard

I returned to the main cemetery of New Plymouth yesterday. As the season advances inexorably into what is already showing signs of late summer, I wanted to see what was in bloom. “Was She who is the Phantom of the Graveyard there?” Mark asked. He had a personalised tour last month from the bright and bubbly person who wishes to remain anonymous and unacknowledged but who has beavered away there for many years now. These days more volunteers have come forward to join her and it is a lovely place to visit.

Why go there rather than our public gardens to see what is in flower? I am delighted by what is the grown ups’ version of the miniature gardens our children used to make for Show Day in their junior school years. Grave-sized gardens, in fact, which are styled individually, often from donated plants. It is an interesting place to look at plant combinations, plant performance under a light maintenance regime (the area is huge) and incidents of serendipity.

I am planning a meadow for our new Court Garden but, influenced by the Pictorial Meadows excellence in the UK, I want to select plants that will bloom in succession from spring to autumn. At this time of summer, we are not as flowery here as earlier in the season and I was wondering what we could consider. There weren’t many answers for me as far as the proposed meadow is concerned because I think I want to at least start that with mostly annuals and biennials rather than perennials and bulbs in order to achieve the meadow look as opposed to herbaceous plantings. But there was plenty of other interest amongst the graves.

Canna liles star in these small, grave-sized gardens

Cannas and dahlias were the stars yesterday morning. I am not a fan of cannas. They are too big, dominant and blobby for our tastes here and they don’t die down gracefully. But they are certainly showy and the colour range surprised me – from whites and pale lemons through paler pinks to bright, vibrant showstopper blooms. I can admire them without needing to grow them. In fact, I prefer to admire them elsewhere.

Gaura – they do indeed dance like butterfies in the breeze

The gaura looked terrific. Ethereal even, waving in the light breeze like clouds of butterflies. I must try again with these now we have more open areas of garden in full sun. And as I admired the combination of pink lavatera and tall cosmos, I realised again that it is the lightness and movement that I want in our newer meadow and perennial plantings. The romantic prairie look, Mark just called it. That is why I am not so keen on the ponderous cannas.

Hibiscus trionum

One grave was covered in Hibiscus trionum and it was the most eye-catching display of this pretty plant that I have seen.

Lilium formasanum reaching two metres tall

We had been talking about Lilium formasanum the previous day. While it is regarded as a weed in this country and banned from sale, we are quite happy to let it pop up around our place. It is one of those plants that I think in time we may come to accept as a permanent addition to our environment. I assume its weed status is on account of its seeding ways and its ability to pop up in all sorts of situations. We are increasingly of the view that we must learn to live with many of these interlopers and only wage chemical warfare on those that endanger our natural flora – the likes of Clematis vitalba (old man’s beard), Japanese knot weed and, in the area where we live, giant gunnera and pampas grass. The Formosan lily was looking right at home and picture perfect amongst the graves. It is a beautiful flower, though without the heady fragrance of many other lilies.

The belladonnas were also in bloom, as they are on our road verges and wilder margins of the garden here. They are so common we take them for granted, but if you look afresh at them each season, they are a lovely late summer bloom.

Alstomeria flower on and on, seen here with plumbago

In terms of bangs for the buck, alstromerias work hard. I need more of these. Not for the meadow but for my hot summer border. And definitely not the modern over-bred varieties that have been shrunk down to be bedding plants. I want more of the big, tall ones in clear reds, yellows and orange colour mixes. They seem to bloom from spring to autumn and that is not to be sniffed at, as long as you can contain their wandering ways.


All I came up with for my meadow in the end were rudbeckias to go with the amaranthus that has already established itself as a naturalised wildflower here. I may use the Lilium formasanum, despite it being a bulb and I had already decided I wanted the white Japanese anemone in big swathes, despite it being perennial. I simply love the romance of the windflowers. They need to be managed. In a garden situation they can be thuggish and invasive but I think I can mange them in the meadow.

Butterflies, bees and no doubt a host of other insect and bird life inhabit these gardens

Graveyards can be austere, grim places and parts of the Te Henui are of this stark nature, maintained only by weed spray and lawn mowing. But the areas full of these small gardens, flowers and trees lift the spirits and it is clear the public love walking through. Each tap has a little watering receptacle for dogs which was an endearing sight. It is worth a visit and I hope our elected Council officers and paid staff appreciate the special character that the volunteers, led by the dedicated Phantom of the Graveyard, have bestowed upon this place of memories. Some of us even go there for inspiration. Life, growth, flowers and community engagement in amongst death.

Windflower romance – the white Japanese anemones

Perennials for late summer colour

Annuals are plants that are done and dusted in the same year. Biennials flower in their second year, set seed and die. Perennials simply last more than two years. It is some herbaceous perennials that give us most colour in the late summer garden, at a time when many gardens can be looking a little jaded, dull and green.

Kniphofia - worth a second look

Kniphofia – worth a second look

Kniphofia might have had a better lot in the life of NZ gardens if we called them by some of their other common names. Knofflers sound so much more whimsical, torch lilies more exotic but alas we usually refer to them as the less attractive red hot pokers and treat them as low grade roadside plants. Not all kniphofia are the same – there are tall ones, short ones, yellows, bicolours, deciduous, evergreen and finer foliaged options. Don’t overlook them for late summer colour.

Sedums - good bee and butterfly food

Sedums – good bee and butterfly food

Sedums are not the world’s most exciting plant, in my humble opinion, but they put on a great late summer display and feed the bees. You can delay the flowering by snipping off the early growths – called the Chelsea chop. It forces the plant to set new growing and flowering stems which tend to be a little more compact, avoiding that tendency to fall apart. I see sedums have technically been reclassified now as hylotelephium but my chances of remembering that are not great. The white one shown here is S. (or H.) spectabile ‘Stardust’ while the pink one ‘Meteor’. These die back to ground level in late autumn and benefit from digging and dividing every few years.

Coreopsis 'Moonbeam' flowers for a long time through summer without needing deadheading

Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ flowers for a long time through summer without needing deadheading

There is a delightful simplicity to daisy flowers and Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ is no exception. From a flat mat of tiny leaves hugging ground level, it then grows to form a loose mound covered in the prettiest of soft yellow flowers over many weeks at this time. It is perfect for full sun, especially where you want a plant at the front to gently festoon over the edge. There are a host of different coreopsis, originating from North American wild flowers. Some are more perennial than others which are often treated as annuals. ‘Moonbeam’ is fully perennial and easy to increase by division.

This aster is a lovely colour but it needs lifting and dividing every year or two

This aster is a lovely colour but it needs lifting and dividing every year or two

I have a love affair with blue and lilac flowers so this aster never fails to please me. Despite its hugely cumbersome name of Aster novi-belgii ‘Professor Anton Kippenberg’, it too has its roots in the North American wild flowers. If you trace both the coreopsis and the aster back, they are in same family of asteraceae. It is easy to grow, so vigorous in fact that I find it best if it is lifted and divided every two years. It responds with renewed enthusiasm and gives even more flowers than when left congested. In winter, it dies down to a flat mat of foliage.

Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’

Dahlias. I wrote about raising dahlias from seed last week and there is little doubt that our late summer gardens would be poorer for their absence. This is an oldie but a goodie – the Bish, or Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ with pure red flowers and attractive dark foliage. NZ plant breeder Keith Hammett has done a lot of work with dahlias and we are lucky in this country to have a wide range of new varieties to choose from as well.

Showy not subtle, the cannas

Showy not subtle, the cannas

I admit cannas, often referred to as canna lilies, are not my favourite plant. I find their flowers a bit scruffy and the showy foliage a bit over the top but there is no doubt they make a splendid display where something big and bold is desired. Should famine strike, you can apparently eat the rhizome or harvest the young growth. In winter, it all dies away to absolutely nothing visible, to return again the following summer.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.