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Texas | Columns | They Shoe Horses, Don't They?

Consider the Lowly Canna
and Where It Grows

Horticultural Mongrels Number 12

by Sylvan Wilt

"You can lead a horticulture,
but you can't make her think." - Dorothy Parker

The Poorman's Azalea

Said to be a cousin of the banana, the canna is not too far removed from the useful tubers Taro and Cassava (latter being the source of tapioca). But the main interest in the plant today is not in its potential nutritional or pharmaceutical uses. It is widely regarded as an ornamental. Please notice we did not say it was prized as an ornamental. The canna, you see, is the Rodney Daingerfield of the Southern garden.

Cannas, along with prickly pear cactus, are frequently the only flowering plants found in ghost towns and they sometimes rival irises as rooted cemetery flowers. However, their perceived association with poverty and their habit of spreading themselves thick makes them flora non grata at many graveyards - especially those of the 'scraped earth' variety.

Ridiculously easy to grow, cannas will take root if dropped on sand, soil, asphalt, cement or slag heaps of radioactive waste. Before the arrival of the dumpster, towns had back alleys where garbage was hidden from view. Cannas grew so thick that people assumed the flowers appearance was a government beautification project. What convinced them otherwise was that the cannas throve - which they would not have had it been a government project. The truth is that these back alley orphans grew from roots discarded by gardeners who had exhausted other disposal methods like napalm, burial at sea and encasement in cement.

The hardiness of cannas is one of the reasons they are associated with poverty since they are known to be the only flora that can survive child-infested yards. They appear where even Johnson grass has given up. Cannas also tend to be a little gaudy. If they were a person they’d be Dolly Parton. But as common as they are, once they’re removed from their lowly environment, they become quasi-exotic and (sort of) interesting - like Anna Nicole became to anthropologists once she left Mexia.
Attention and Recognition

The Sunday morning television program formerly known as This Week with David Brinkley used to open with a shot of the U. S. Capitol with cannas prominently featured in the foreground. Southern horticulturists (not known for being early Sunday morning risers) set their clocks so that they could see cannas in the spotlight.

In Houston, former mayor, Bob Lanier and his wife landscaped the flowerbeds of home borders with cannas. Or perhaps it was the gardener's decision. This act would be the horticultural equivalent of entering a mongrel in a dog show; but we applaud the Laniers for giving the canna some recognition and for saving River Oaks from the boredom of ligustrum, crepe myrtles and out-of-bloom azaleas.

Cannas are literally cheaper than dirt - or at least potting soil, and for people who have them - they’ll gladly part with an acre of two - if anyone shows a modicum of interest. People unpacking from visits to the South have found cannas tucked in their luggage and dropped into the spare tire wells of their cars.

People returning from Louisiana might want to check their shoes since that's been proven to be a favorite hiding space with Louisianans. The recent Louisiana Canna Scandal (where legislators authorized subsidies for people not to grow cannas) will not be discussed here. Nor will the ugly rumors concerning cannas and ethnic restaurants. After all, one man’s canna root is another man’s water chestnut.

Chernobyl Gardens and Canna Chow

If it wasn't for the cold Russian winters, the legendary resistance of cannas would make them the first choice for replanting the gardens of Chernobyl. And when people get serious about fighting starvation in Africa - the United Nations might start an investigation into the nutritional content of canna roots. The broad leaves of cannas might not yet be salad ingredients for humans - but goats are another story. And goats provide meat and milk.

For some reason Wal-Mart seems to be a major supplier of cannas. They appear in huge bins in early spring and unlike other items offered to the masses, you need not get there early. After all the other bulbs are gone, the cannas are still there. Even where Wal-Marts have closed down to suck the business lifeblood from other towns, cannas spring up in the old concrete slabs.

Don't hold your breath waiting for the Canna to "uproot" the Bluebonnet as the official Texas State Flower; but there may be surprises yet to come from this under-appreciated flower. What if their powdered roots were an aphrodisiac, a fire ant repellent or a cheap substitute for overpriced Haitian voodoo herbs?

For small Texas towns needing a slogan - "Canna Capital of Texas" hasn't yet been taken. Even if your town doesn't have enough to qualify - don't yet have any cannas - don't let that stop you. It didn't stop Sanderson, Floresville or Georgetown from becoming "Capitals" for Cactus, Peanuts and Poppies (respectively).

Any comments, praise, stories or recipes for cannas can be sent to the editor.

© John Troesser
"They shoe horses, don't they?"
July 7, 2004 Column

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