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What is a Canna Lily?

Here's everything you need to know about the canna lily, what it looks like, their growing conditions, and how are they being reproduced and used. We've also included some planting tips so you can incorporate them into your garden.

Amazing yellow and orange canna lily flowers growing side by side in garden

Genus Cannaceae

Most of you have probably heard of calla lilies, but have you ever heard of a canna lily? This flowering plant is part of the genus cannaceae that only consists of 10 species. Canna lilies are not actually true lilies, but are related to birds of paradise, heliconias, bananas, ginger, and arrowroot.

The canna lily is one of the first domesticated plants known of from the Americas, and it is highly valued for its edible starchy root. But the uses for this plant doesn’t end with its ornamental quality and starch, its used for natural dyeing, it goes into making instruments, and can even be made into paper!

The canna lily is native to the America’s but has since be cultivated all over the planet in tropical and subtropical regions. It is very low maintenance and easy to grow, making it a highly valuable plant. Beautiful, edible, and low maintenance? Sign me up!

We’re sure that the canna lily will be the next addition to your garden after you finish reading this article. But if perchance you don’t live in the proper growing region we have created a Wonderful List of Flowering Plants where you’ll sure find the perfect cold hardy plant for your garden.

Related: Tropical Flowers | Orange Flowers | Types of Flowers by Color | Types of Flowers by Alphabet | Types of Flowers | Calla Lily

What do Canna Lilies Look Like?

The canna lily is a very large, tropical, herbaceous perennial with a rhizomatous rootstock – or can be more commonly referred to as canna lily bulbs.

Single orange and yellow canna lily flower in full bloom and huge green leaves

Flowers

The canna lily is an absolutely beautiful, though they are rather inconspicuous as they are hidden arund the extravagant leaves of the plant. Flowers bloom early, and their blooming season can sometimes extend into the late summer.

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Flowers are asymmetric and are composed of 3 small petals and 3 small sepals. Flowers are borne in inflorescences of spikes or panicles. A canna flower can be either monochromatic or a combination of red, orange, or yellow.

Not only do these canna lily flowers bring drama and extravagance to any landscape, but they are very effective at attracting pollinators as well. Bees, wasps, moths, hummingbirds, and bats can’t seem to get enough!

Leaves

One of the most distinguished part of the canna lily plant is its leaves. Each leaf is very broad and flat, and can grow to nearly 3 metres long! Though size varies between different cultivars, they have a common shape of an elephant ear.

Canna leaves will grow out of its stem in the form of a long and thin roll, then slowly unfurl. Most leaves are a solid glossy green color, though there are certain varieties that can be glaucous or a maroon color.

Wonderful and huge maroon and green striped leaves of the canna lily plant

Growth Pattern

Canna lily flowers emerge from the base of the stem and rise up erect from the ground. Green leaves are alternately arranged along stems and at the ends of the stems emerge the inflorescences of flowers. Height, leaf color, and flower color will vary depending on the different canna cultivars.

Depending on the cultivar, there are both tall varieties and dwarf varieties, though all varieties bear very exotic flowers.

How do Canna Lilies Reproduce?

When grown naturally, canna lily seeds are produced by sexual reproduction. Canna lily flowers are hermaphroditic, meaning that they possess both male sexual characteristics and female sexual characteristics.

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This process involves the transfer of pollen from the stamen to the stigma. This can happen within the same flower, the flower of the same plant, or the flower of another plant.

The seeds are produced after pollination and seeds are small and black and are covered in very hard seed pods. This can often cause long term dormancy.

Germination is usually facilitated by the scarification of a canna seed coat, which basically means scratching and irritating the surface to trigger the seed out of dormancy.

Certain species are capable of self pollination, though most of them require a little bit of help from our pollinating friends, like bees or butterflies.

Yellow flowers with orange speckles of the canna lily plant in full bloom

Where do Canna Lilies Grow?

The two main varieties of canna lilies are said to be native to two different places. The variety canna indica is a native plant from the Americas and was brought to the East Indies and onto Europe. Canna glauca is a variety that is native to Asia and Africa, and is as equally widespread as canna indica.

Since their origination, canna lilies are able to grow prosperously in all tropical and subtropical regions of the New World. Specifically, their growing regions starts in the southern United States and extends southward to Argentina. They grow in USDA growing zones 6 through 8.

Tops of canna lily plants with flowers in bloom and large green leaves reaching for a blue sky

How Can I Grow a Canna Lily?

You’ve made it this far, and that means that you are really interested in incorporating the canna lily to your garden, apartment balcony, or as a container plant. Turns out that growing canna lilies yourself is really quite simple, and you don’t need to be an expert gardener to get it right.

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The best way to grow your own canna lily is by rhizome division. A rhizome is an organ of a plant that lies underground, and its purpose is usually to hold nutrients. In the case of the canna lily, that is starch.

Rhizomes are thick bulbs (certain types of roots) that are easy to spot. Remember how we said earlier than canna lilies are related to ginger root? Think of that type of shape!

Rhizomes are also covered with growing nodal points (or growing eye) which is where the roots will emerge from. When dividing rhizomes, ensure that each piece you harvest has at least 1 or 2 nodal points.

One single canna lily bulb can be separated into 4 or 5 different parts. This will ensure that all of the genetic makeup of the parent plant will passed on to the following plants, much like a clone. So make sure that you choose a plant that looked particularly sprightly.

The same rules apply when it comes to digging up a canna bulb from an already established plant. Since the canna rhizome is not tolerant to frost whatsoever, they can always be kept for the following year!

Once it is time to plant them again, place the rhizomes 3-6 inches deep into the soil and 12-24 inches apart with the nodal eyes facing upwards. They should be watered very well at this stage, and a layer of mulch can be added on top of the soil to help retain soil moisture.

Early blooming of pink canna lily flowers growing in a garden

What are the Growing Conditions of the Canna Lily?

Soil Type

One of the most particular growing conditions of the canna lily is its soil type. It prefers to grow in soils that are very nutrient rich and are also rich in organic matter. Peat moss is a great addition to soil.

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Moist soil should be well drained, and it can be either neutral or acidic on the pH scale. The absolute best area for a canna plant to grow is in bog-like conditions, or in sandy soil that is very well drained.

Water Level

Canna lilies love water. They are not a particularly drought tolerant plant, and so it is important to ensure that their soil never goes completely dry. This could greatly affect the plants ability to produce flowers.

Sun Exposure

The canna lily prefers to grow in full sun conditions (as their native growing regions are very sunny places) though they are capable of surviving partial shade. The only risk there is that they may not have as productive of a blooming season!

Clusters of orange canna lily flowers growing at the tips of maroon stems in a large garden

Temperature

This plant is not a very cold hardy plant, and it will not survive once temperatures dip below 14 degrees Fahrenheit. In colder regions you can dig up the plants’ rhizomes, keep them in a pot of soil, and let them lay dormant until the follow spring!

Fertilizer

Canna lilies respond very well to fertilizer, and it oftentimes helps extend the blooming season of the plant. It is best to use a fertilizer that is very high in phosphates, and it can be applied monthly.

Pruning

When it comes to pruning, it can be very beneficial to deadhead a canna lily. Doing this will encourage reblooming of the plant.

Cut off the already bloomed flower stalk right above the second flowering node which should be opening up ever slightly.

Intolerances

Canna lilies are wonderfully resilient, and there isn’t much that will cause them great detriment. The main things to remember are to keep the soil moist, and keep them in the sun!

Close up of a small pink canna lily flowers growing at tips of stems

How are Canna Lilies Used?

Ornamental

Canna lilies are grown in tropical and subtropical gardens all over the world. Any cultivar can be used in a flower bed, as herbaceous borders, on decks and patios, in pots indoors, and they are one of the most popular garden plants on the planet. This tropical plant brings marvellous color to any landscape.

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Agricultural

You wouldn’t think that canna lilies are grown commercially for anything other than their ornamental purpose, but they are! The rhizomes of the plant are farmed as a source of starch for both animal and human consumption. They are actually the largest source of starch that be sourced from a plant!

The young shoots of a plant can also be eaten like a vegetable, and the young seeds make for a tasty and crunchy addition to traditional tortillas. The stems and foliage that are leftover from the rhizome harvesting are used for animal fodder.

Ethnobotany

If all of those cool uses weren’t enough, this plant provides so much more. In certain regions of India, the foliage and flowers are fermented and made into alcohol.

The seeds can be used a decorative beads, or they are used as the rattling element in the musical instrument called a Kayamb. A beautiful purple natural dye can be obtained from the seeds as well.

And finally, the leaves of the canna lily plant are highly fibrous and can be pulped and used to make paper. This is what we like to call a super plant!

Beautiful bright yellow canna lilies growing at the tips of stems and large glossy green leaves

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