Botany Blueprint: The Canna Lily

Specimen #13: Canna Lily (Canna indica)


For much of its modern history, the canna lily (Canna indica) was the exclusive purview of Victorian gardens. New cultivars abounded, and the exotic flowers were all the rage with classically formal European landscapes. In the mid-century, however, the upheaval of two World Wars cleared the design slate and ushered in a trend of botanic modesty. The canna fell out of fashion. Recent decades have re-embraced the canna, and the genus currently flourishes with some 2000 cultivars of varying saturated flower color (salmon, gold, deep orange, blood-red), height (three to six meters), and blooming schedule (nocturnal or diurnal).

And so today, canna lilies are no longer limited to their native Neotropical habitat (Virginia to Texas, northern Argentina to the West Indies). Domestic gardens in unlikely climates, even above the Arctic Circle, are punctuated with brilliantly colored exclamation points. Some cultivars even flaunt a spectrum of hues on a single blossom: a Sno-Cone for those who can’t choose one flavor. Many of the canna lily’s epithets are derived from its seeds. As a wildflower in the Caribbean, the canna is more commonly known as “Indian shot.” The perfectly round black seeds are dense, hard, and textured like hammered metal. Fanciful legends cite references to the durable seeds used as ammunition in 18th century warfare, both casual and maritime. Whether or not this is true, the botanic bullets are indeed uniformly sized to fit a pirate’s blunderbuss or a dueler’s flintlock musket. In fact, a botanist’s trial confirmed the effectiveness of such repurposing. Wayne Armstrong, a botany professor at Palomar College in San Marcos, California, replaced the lead pellets of a low-velocity 12 gauge shotgun with seeds from a canna lily. At a distance of ten feet, the seeds bore through quarter inch plywood, and many were unaltered by the blast.

Of course, the canna lily’s tough little seeds are designed not for pugilism, but for reproduction. Fortified with a hard, impenetrable covering, the seeds can hibernate for centuries. One patient seed allegedly lay dormant in an Incan midden heap; excavated 3500 years later, it germinated a modern canna incarnation.

Finally, the canna lily (and its seeds) enjoys an illuminated role in ecclesiastic history. Among the devout, the flower is referred to as the Rosary Bead, and is often planted alongside a statue of the Virgin in “Mary’s Gardens.” Designed according to pre-Reformation texts that included botanic references to liturgical flora, the gardens are anointed with “Flowers of Our Lady.” According to Vincenzina Krymow, author of Mary’s Flowers, (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1999), rural Catholics learned of Mary in the 12th century partly “through [knowing] her flower symbols growing around them and their associated legends, as taught by itinerant preachers and wandering minstrels.” The list of plants was compiled from oral folk tradition, thus a taxonomical Latin name was often absent. Instead, flowers were named as pious epithets: Our Lady’s Shoes (columbine), Mary’s Crown (bachelor’s buttons), and, of course, the canna lily was known as Rosary Bead, after its perfect seeds.

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