TROPICAL DREAMS

A slow spring is absolutely painful.  After waiting all winter for the warm soft breezes and pollen-induced sneezes that herald spring in this part of the world, it is awful to have to put up with cold rainy weather.  It seems to dampen the spirits without appreciably diminishing the pollen count.

Still, there are compensations.  The fragile appearance of the pansies in front of my house belies the fact that they have withstood a late spring snowfall, gusty winds and chilly rain.  The cold overcast weather has made the daffodils last longer.  Chickweed, which is undoubtedly impervious to anything short of volcanic eruption, is rampaging through my backyard.  My flower seedlings, hardening off on the back porch and newly planted in the front border, may be shivering a bit, but they are hanging on.  If they can do it, clad only in their wispy secondary leaves, I can do it too.

I console myself as the rain pelts down by thinking about big, brassy tropical plants.  This is a new line of thought for me, as I don’t know many people who raise cannas or elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta) or even fancy-leafed Caladiums.  They certainly weren’t part of my childhood.  My mother, had she known about them, would have found them distastefully gaudy.  My father would have resisted planting something that had to be taken up and stored in the winter.

But, as the psychologists say, we all have to leave childhood behind sometime.  In my case that time is now.  I have decided to invest in some cannas.  The jury is still out on elephant ears, but I will probably end up with one in a pot on my back porch. 

Surprisingly enough, this would be quite in keeping with my “old-fashioned” garden.  The Victorians loved cannas for their showy flowers and foliage. Back in the days when people had either more time or more garden helpers, they were not averse to lifting and storing big batches of hefty rhizomes through the winter.  In parts of the Deep South and California, cannas can still be found naturalized at old home sites.

There are all kinds of vendors that sell cannas on the Internet.  They also provide a wealth of canna lore.  Most sources, including the venerable Hortus Third, mention that canna originated in tropical and subtropical regions.  One source claims that indiginous headhunters in some of those areas traditionally ate the plant’s roots.  Another, somewhat more believable source, refers to canna as “the birthplant of the month” for September.  I suspect that there is more manure on some of the websites than there is in my garden.

Cannas are big, with some of the cultivars reaching 8’.  There are also dwarf varieties that come in at about 2’.  I am looking for a plant, with flowers that are predominately yellow or white that stands between 2’ and 6’ (I don’t like having to get up on a ladder to observe my flowers).  Variegated foliage would be a nice addition as well.

Thumbing through one catalog I find ‘Princess Di’, named, as many plants are these days, after the late Princess of Wales.  ‘Princess Di” stands between 2-3’ tall, has grayish foliage and cream petals with a blushing center.  It’s a possibility.  A similar cultivar, ‘Richard Wallace’ is a bit taller with yellow “gladiolus-like” flowers.  It was hybridized in 1902, which appeals to the historian in me.  If I am feeling a little wild and crazy, I may even go for ‘Striped Beauty’, which has green and yellow striped leaves and “red budded, white striped yellow flowers”.  Even though it only rises between 2’-3’, ‘Striped Beauty’ sounds like it will have a lot of impact.

If we have a few more rainy spring days, I may feel desperate enough to buy all of the above, plus an elephant ear or two.  There is a strange-sounding cultivar of the latter, Colocasia esculenta ‘Illustris’, that sports grayish black leaves with lime green veins and leaf edging.  If the rains continue, I can put it and a few cannas in big pots around my Adirondack chair, then settle back and pretend I am in the rain forest.  It will beat walking around my garden and watching the roses get black spot.

 



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