by Matt Gibson
Canna lily flowers (also known as Indian shot) are large, colorful and bold. Despite the name, they are not related to true lilies. The rhizomatous perennial is often grown as an annual in cooler climate areas, but in the proper zones, or if stored during the winter, cannas can bring bright luminous color to your garden for years and years. Easy to grow and relatively low maintenance, cannas provides a deep presence of color to your garden from both its blooms and leaves throughout the growing season.
The iris-like (sometimes orchid-like) blooms that range in color from eye-catching shades of red, pink, salmon, and orange to a more subtle yellow or cream seem to emerge from tall stalks that tower above the lush foliage below. Despite the beauty of their massive flowerheads, canna lilies are frequently grown for their foliage alone. The large, paddle-like leaves come in many shades of green, blue-green, maroon, and bronze. The foliage is often striped, variegated, and iridescent, sometimes reminiscent of stained glass when the sunlight shines through them.
Cannas would be a glorious addition to any garden even if they never bloomed, but luckily they produce lovely blooms (prolifically if deadheaded regularly) from late spring or early summer, all the way to the first frost. When most other flowers fall or simply stop producing blooms in the heat of late July and August, canna lilies thrive. For the most eye-catching effect, plant your canna lilies in tight clusters or groups, or in mixed borders.
When fully matured, canna lilies can reach three to six feet in height, and span one to three feet wide at their base. They are resistant to deer and attract many beneficial insects and pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and larger birds (due to their tall stalks and massive flowerheads).
Varieties of Cannas
There are hundreds of different varieties of cannas, with a wide range of heights, leaf types, flower colors and shapes available to gardeners around the world. The many varieties are the result of hybridizing about nine different species of cannas together and then crossing the hybrids with each other.
There are four sizes of canna lilies to choose from. Pixie canna lilies grow to one and a half to two feet high. Dwarf cannas reach two to three feet. Medium canna lilies grow three to five feet high and tall cannas grow five to six and a half feet high.
Here are a few varieties that are especially pretty and unique:
Zulu Pink – Reddish-black foliage with pink flowers, around Three feet tall.
Bangkok – Bright yellow flowers, dark green leaves with narrow white stripes.
King Humbert – Red flowers with dark purple-bronze foliage.
Tropicanna – A newer set of hybrid varieties with rainbow-like foliage with stripes of gold, pink, yellow, green, and burgundy topped with bright nearly-neon colored blooms.
Black Knight – Bright red flowers above dark maroon leaves.
Growing Conditions for Canna Lilies
Hardy in USDA zones eight through 12, canna lilies enjoy the heat, preferably full sun, though partial shade is also acceptable. Choose a location that receives at least four hours of direct sunlight, ideally morning or afternoon sun. Canna lilies prefer moist conditions and a neutral to slightly acidic well-draining soil that is rich in organic matter. Cannas also thrives in bog-like conditions. If growing indoors, plant canna lilies in large containers near brightly lit windows.
How to Plant Canna Lilies
During the spring, after the threat of frost has passed, plant canna lily groups about one to two feet apart. Plant rhizomes horizontally with the eyes facing upwards, covering with about three to six inches of soil. Water thoroughly after planting and add a layer of mulch to help retain moisture.
Care of Canna Lilies
Once established, keep the soil around your canna lilies moist, watering freely during dry spells and anytime rainfall is less than one inch per week. Keep a thin layer of mulch around cannas lilies as well to help assist in moisture retention.
Though canna lilies are not picky about the kind of fertilizer that you use, some will work better than others. Fertilize your lilies with a high-phosphate fertilizer once per month for continual blooms. For an extra boost, apply a 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 in the spring, and two more times during the growing season. For an organic fertilizer alternative, try fish emulsion fertilizer. Fish emulsion fertilizer is high in nitrogen, which will increase the height of your lilies, but it is one of the best organic options available. If you have rose food or tomato food fertilizers on hand, both are great options for canna lilies as well.
In zones seven and warmer, canna lilies can be left in the ground all year long. However, in zones six and colder, you will need to bring them indoors or dig up the rhizomes after the first killing frost if you want to enjoy them again the following season. Alternatively, you could move your lilies to large pots and allow them to continue growing throughout the winter indoors. You can choose to replant them in the ground when spring rolls back around after the last threat of frost has passed or replant them in larger pots at this time. Spring is also the perfect time to divide the plants if necessary.
Staking may be necessary for taller cannas varieties. Keep a close eye on blooms throughout the growing season. As flowers begin to fade, deadhead to promote more flowering. After each flower stem has been deadheaded multiple times, they will stop producing new blooms. At this point, you have two choices. If you plan to keep the plant around for future years of growth, you will want to cut the stem and foliage beneath down to the ground so that new foliage and stems will grow up in its place. If you are growing as annuals, cut the stems down to the foliage, which will continue to bring some beauty to your garden beds until the first frost.
In the fall, cut your lilies back to four inches in height to get them ready for next summer’s explosive growth. In warm climate areas, keep the lilies in the soil until the clumps begin to become very matted. Every three to four years, dig up the roots, separate the clumps and replant in freshly enriched soil.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Canna Lilies
Rust, fungal leaf spot, and bacterial blight may occur if canna lilies are kept in waterlogged soils with poor drainage, or if the lilies are too crowded. Bean yellow mosaic and spotted wilt viruses can also occur. Though canna lilies rarely have issues with pests, caterpillars, slugs, snails, and spider mites can cause damage to your canna lilies occasionally.
Videos About Canna Lilies
YouTube gardening gurus, The Middle-Sized Garden, bring you a comprehensive tutorial video for selecting and growing cannas, no matter where you live. The Middle-Sized Garden is an established UK blog and YouTube channel. For this short film, they bring in broadcaster and expert gardener Stephen Ryan to share his tips and advice on choosing and caring for these exotic beauties:
This helpful film teaches you how to prune canna flowers. Pruning, or deadheading cannas will lead to healthier, taller plants. Since cutting your flowers is a delicate artform, getting a visual aid will help you feel more confident about performing the task yourself. In less than two minutes time, YouTuber Farmer Paula, from South Carolina, teaches you everything you need to know in this video.
Kim Toscano, from YouTube channel OklahomaGardening, explains how to divide and pot canna bulbs that have been stored and preserved during the winter. Many gardeners choose to discard and reinvest in their cannas each year, but saving and replanting your cannas can save you a good bit of money. This short video also teaches you how to divide your cannas by cutting the rhizomes of the dry, stored plant and planting the bulbs four to six inches deep into the soil.
To accompany the video directly above this one, check out this helpful tutorial from YouTube gardening enthusiasts DigitalTV4u, about how to dig up and store canna bulbs for winter. In warmer climate zones, there is no need to store your cannas during the winter, but in colder climates, winter storage is essential. This short film, and the one above it, will give you all the info you need to keep your canna lilies around year after year.