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Shoe Horses, Don't They?
and Where It Grows
by Sylvan Wilt
"You can lead a horticulture,
but you can't make her think." - Dorothy Parker
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.
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.
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,
from becoming "Capitals" for Cactus, Peanuts and Poppies (respectively).
Any comments, praise, stories or recipes for cannas can be sent to
© John Troesser
"They shoe horses, don't
7, 2004 Column