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A field of stunning red flowering canna lilies in a garden
With magnificent exotic foliage and flamboyant flowers throughout summer, the canna lily is the exhibitionist of the flower garden. This perennial plant will make a fabulous statement with bold variegated leaves and hot-coloured flowers.

What you need to know about canna lilies 

Name: canna lily, Indian shot, Canna indica, C x generalis, purple or Queensland arrowroot, canna “Edulis”.

Height: usually 0.6–3m tall.

Foliage: large, broad, oblong to elliptical leaves arranged spirally on stems arise from a perennial tuberous rhizome. Usually green, blue-green, bronze, purple or multicolored.

Climate: grows naturally in tropical conditions and will tolerate warm and cooler temperate climates, though it may die back to the ground in winter. In frost-prone areas, mulch or lift the rhizomes over winter to protect them.

Soil: a humus-rich moisture-retentive soil is required.

Position: full sun to partial shade in warmer temperate climates. Many will grow partially submerged in ponds or water features.

Flowering and fruiting: colourful spikes of irregular showy flowers from spring until autumn or the first frost.

Feeding: use a controlled-release organic fertiliser specifically for flowering plants in early spring, and then regular liquid or granular fertilisers throughout spring, summer and early autumn.

Watering: regular watering 2–3 times per week is required throughout the spring and summer months. Plants will thrive in waterlogged conditions in warmer areas. 

Appearance and characteristics of canna lily

The canna lily is the only plant in the family Cannaceae, but is closely related to the ginger, banana and Strelitzia families. Growing from 0.6 up to 3m tall from a below-ground edible tuberous rootstock, these hybrid perennials produce broad and luxuriant colourful foliage in green, blue-green, bronze and multicoloured shades. Masses of bold, irregular-shaped lily-like flowers are produced on tall spikes during the warmer months. Colours range from red, orange or yellow to pink, apricot or white, often with spotted, mottled or bicoloured petals.

Originating from the tropical areas of South America with one species from Florida, canna lily usually inhabits damp, marshy environments and has become naturalised throughout the tropics and sub-tropics. Due to its widespread popularity in the 19th century, a proliferation of hybrids developed across the world, resulting in considerable confusion in the naming of varieties. Some even had several inconsistent names in different countries around the world.

Yellow Canna Lily with orange spots colourful flower blossomed

Uses for canna lily

Once widely used in mass bedding schemes and as “focal” or “dot” plants in borders and bedding schemes, canna lily is suitable for growing in both large and small gardens or in pots, as well as for waterside and pond planting.

The edible rootstocks of canna “Edulis” are grown in water and used to produce easily digestible starch. It is baked and eaten in South America, used for flour and noodle production in Asia and for industrial starch in Australia.

How to plant and grow a canna lily

Canna lily will adapt to and tolerate both warm and cooler temperate climates, but it may die back to the ground in winter. In frost-prone areas, cover the rhizomes with mulch, or lift and store the rhizomes over winter to protect them. These can be potted up and placed in a warm glasshouse and then replanted the following spring.

Canna lily requires a moisture-retentive soil, with additional organic compost, manures and conditioners to encourage strong, vigorous growth. A pH of around 6.5–7 is preferred for its cultivation. For improved flowering and foliage, keep the plant moist from spring through until autumn. Canna lily will happily grow in waterlogged conditions or partially submerged in pots in either ponds or water features. In pots and containers always use a premium standard potting mix and keep your plant well watered throughout summer.

How to fertilise a canna lily

The canna lily is a heavy feeder and responds well to added nutrients. Use a controlled-release organic fertiliser around the plants in spring. Regular applications of granular or liquid fertilisers should be applied from spring until autumn to encourage vigorous healthy foliage and colourful flowers.

How to prune a canna lily

Follow these tips when pruning your canna lily:

  • Deadhead any flowering spikes quickly to encourage further flowering and regrowth.
  • Cut off the flowers at the next side shoot down, which will in turn produce another flower spike. Each stem should produce between two and four spikes.
  • Damaged growth or old stems can be cut back to just above ground level. In autumn or after the first frost, cut the stems back down to the ground and mulch to protect them.
  • In tropical or warm temperate climates, canna lily will continue to grow and can be cut back hard in autumn or spring to rejuvenate and control the clump.

Diseases and pests

Canna lily is generally trouble free, with most major pest problems caused by aphids, caterpillars, snails and slugs. Aphids and caterpillars can be controlled with the use of insecticides.

Slugs and snails can be controlled organically with beer traps, handpicking by torchlight, and barriers of copper tape or by using iron chelate-based snail pellets. These are the safest for your pets and the local wildlife. Rhizomes may occasionally rot in storage. Cut away all damaged portions cleanly and dust with a sulphur-based fungicide.

How to propagate canna lily

Canna lily is usually divided in spring before growth commences. In warmer areas it may also be divided in autumn

  • When splitting up the clumps, choose tubers with between three to five eyes of shoots for replanting in the garden. These will form the best-balanced and rounded clumps.
  • Each division must have at least one shoot or eye to grow and survive.
  • Some cultivars can be gently pulled apart, but most will need to be cut with a sharp knife or pair of secateurs.

Growing canna lily from seed

  1. File the dark hard seed gently with sandpaper to soften the hard seed coat.
  2. Soak in water for 24 hours.
  3. Sow in pots or trays in late winter or early spring.

If you like this then try

Dahlia: vibrant autumn flowering perennial perfect for mixed herbaceous borders or growing pots, with hot-coloured flowers and interesting foliage.

Foxgloves (Digitalis): statuesque biennials and perennials with spikes of delicate two-lipped tubular flowers in spring.

Poppies (Papaver): annuals, biennials and perennials with cupped petals and vibrant red, white, purple or pink blooms in spring.

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