How to Grow and Care for Canna Lilies

Canna lilies are grown all over the world for their striking flowers in bright colors, contrasting well against their large, banana-like leaves.

They work with any planting scheme you can imagine, whether that’s a tropical look, a more formal-looking garden, or anything else you might have in mind.

Here’s how to get the best out of canna lilies.

At A Glance: What You Should Know About Canna Lilies

The canna lily is the only genus in the Cannaceae plant family, and while there are only 10 species, there are many cultivars to choose from. 

They are not true lilies. They are more closely related to ginger plants (see also Growing Ginger Indoors), banana plants (as you might guess from the leaves), and the bird of paradise plant.

While these plants hail from the tropics, don’t discount them if you live somewhere colder. Most cultivars have been bred in temperate climates. 

These plants are very resilient, so they will grow in most areas, provided that you give them at least 6 hours of sunlight during summer and warmth in the winter.

You can also grow them as houseplants, but they can be a little tricky, as they need plenty of light, especially indoors, and they may not flower in an indoor environment.

Canna lilies are herbaceous perennials that grow from rhizomes and are sensitive to overwatering. The leaves can be a solid green, but some have variegated or even pinstriped leaves in different shades of green or maroon.

The flowers tend to appear at the top of the stem, in shades of red, yellow, orange, or a combination of these. They look very similar to the iris in shape.

In the wild, they can get between 6 and nearly 10 feet tall, but in gardens, this tends to be between 1 and 5 feet, depending on the growing conditions and the cultivar you choose.

How To Grow A Canna Lily

Canna lilies like a lot of sunlight, and you may not see any flowers without at least a little direct sun. However, they have been known to flower in partial shade, as long as the surrounding temperature is warm enough. 

These plants like a lot of nutrition, so plant them in good-quality compost with plenty of goodness, preferably in soil that has some moisture-retentive properties. 

These plants are perennials, and given the right conditions, they will flower for years to come. You can also grow them as annuals if you prefer.

It’s worth knowing that strong winds will tear both the delicate leaves and the flowers, so make sure the plant has a sheltered position. 

An ideal place would be against a stone wall or the side of your house, where the sun’s heat can radiate back from the stones and keep the plant warm.

Canna lilies are tender, so any amount of frost will kill them. But these plants are easily dug up and moved inside or in a greenhouse during winter.

They do like a lot of heat and soil that is good quality, but one thing they won’t stand is dry spells. 

You can use moisture-retaining crystals if you’re growing them in containers, but this isn’t necessary. Water often instead, keeping the soil moist but not soggy.

How To Propagate Canna Lilies

Canna lilies can be started through seed or by dividing existing plants, and the latter is definitely the easiest option. 

Seeds do not guarantee that the plant will look like the parents, so it’s best to grow them from existing rhizomes by division.

You should do this in spring when there are little to no leaves or stems above the ground. Take a section of a rhizome that has at least three growing points, and pot it on as a separate plant.

Make sure that the ‘eyes’ of the rhizomes face towards the sky, and cover each one with at least 3 inches of soil. Water the new canna lilies well.

How To Care For Canna Lilies

Sunlight And Position

Canna lilies love sunlight in a sheltered position, and they will do well in containers, borders, or raised beds, as long as you give them enough sunlight.

When To Water A Canna Lily

Canna lilies like to be on the damp side as a general rule, in soil that never dries out completely. But you do have to be careful not to overdo the watering, as they won’t tolerate soggy soil for long before they develop root rot. 

When To Feed A Canna Lily

Canna lilies are hungry plants, so make sure to top up the nutrients in the soil with a slow-release fertilizer every so often. 

During the summer months, you can apply a liquid feed weekly to help support the plant’s blooming season, and this will go a long way to helping your canna lily be at its absolute best. 

If you do find that your canna lily looks a bit ‘sad’ or tattered during the summer, it’s likely that the plant is starving for nutrients, so give it a good feed.

Pests And Diseases To Watch Out For

Mostly, canna lilies are very resilient if you grow them in the right place. More often than not, your canna lilies will shoot up, which will be a problem in itself (!) when they get to giant size after a couple of years.

You will need some muscle to move them when they get large to overwinter them when it gets colder.

It’s worth noting that the canna virus is on the rise, which does not have a cure. Affected plants develop odd streaks and spots on the leaves, and flowers become misshapen and have white patches.

No one knows what causes this disease, but it is more common in canna lilies that are sold as rhizomes rather than established plants in pots. 

A way to minimize the risk is to buy canna plants in person, where you can inspect the leaves for problems, and only buy with trusted suppliers.

In terms of pests, you might see slugs, snails, and Japanese beetles, which feast on the leaves and the flowers. A good way of preventing some pests is to keep away from chemical fertilizers and make sure the plants are as healthy as possible to start with.

You may also find the canna leaf-roller attacking your plants, where a moth lays caterpillar eggs in the buds of the plant. 

These pests stop leaves from opening, and feast on the young leaf, causing devastation to the plant. 

Always keep an eye on your canna lilies during spring, making sure to check the leaves for pests, and removing them as soon as you see them.

Growing Canna Lilies In Pots

Canna lilies are perfect container plants, but you will need a large pot for them! This means you can place them anywhere provided that there is enough sunlight and a sheltered position to keep them healthy. 

You will also need to feed them more regularly than if you keep them in the ground, as there will be fewer nutrients in the soil for the plant to feed on.

How To Overwinter Canna Lilies

It’s important to overwinter canna lilies if you live in a cool area, otherwise, they are unlikely to survive the winter. 

If you’ve planted your cannas in the ground, they will need digging up in the fall. You can treat them as dahlias, where you store the bulbs over winter in dry pots in the greenhouse.

Or, you can move the pots indoors, protecting them from any frosts. Some people like to prune their cannas to the ground before storing them for winter, while others prefer to keep them as they are.

When all risk of frost is over, you can move them back outside, and this is the perfect time to divide them to make new plants.

Canna Lily Cultivars To Consider

There are many cultivars to consider, and it can be difficult to choose between them. Here are just a few of the ones you might want to consider growing in your garden.

Canna ‘Mystique’

Arguably one of the prettiest cannas is ‘Mystique’, with its rich red-purple foliage, and petite bright pink flowers. It can reach 2 meters tall and looks perfect against deep green plants to really offset the colors.

Canna ‘Lincroft’

If you’d prefer a canna that doesn’t get as tall, ‘Lincroft’ can reach 1.2 meters tall at the most, and produces striking emerald leaves, which work well against sunny yellow flowers that feature pink speckles.

It likes soil that never dries out completely, like all cannas, so keep this in mind.

Canna ‘Striata’

This particular cultivar has beautiful foliage, with bright green leaves which feature yellow stripes. 

The plant also puts on a dramatic display in summer, blooming in vivid orange. It reaches just shy of 1.9 meters in the right conditions.

Canna ‘Phasion’ 

If you’d prefer much darker leaves with a pinstripe, ‘Phasion’ might be the one for you. It features deep purple foliage, striped with pink veins, and to top it off, it features striking orange flowers as the perfect contrast.

It’s a variety that will reach just under 2 meters in the right conditions.

Canna ‘City Of Portland’

This gorgeous variety features emerald green leaves, and striking coral flowers, reaching 5 feet tall in the right conditions.

Canna ‘Semaphore’

If you’d prefer a dwarf variety, ‘Semaphore’ is a fantastic option. It provides a wealth of color with its lava-like orange flowers, offsetting well against the deep bronze leaves. 

It will reach about 80cm tall, making it perfect for containers or small spaces.

Canna ‘Cleopatra’

Perhaps the most unusual of all canna lilies, ‘Cleopatra’ produces variegated leaves and flowers. 

The foliage in itself is striking, with bright green leaves with burgundy stripes, and makes the perfect background for its cheery yellow flowers, speckled with red.

It reaches a maximum height of 4 feet tall, so stays a manageable size.

Canna ‘Picasso’

If you’d prefer solid green leaves but speckled flowers, ‘Picasso’ might be the cultivar for you. It produces fantastic golden flowers peppered with tiny red spots, adding a fabulous burst of color to any garden.

Final Thoughts

Canna lilies are fantastic plants that add a lot of life to any garden, with their banana-like leaves and beautiful flowers.

They add plenty of height and color to any space, as long as you give them enough light, space, and warmth.

Remember that if you live in a colder climate, you don’t need to resort to growing tropical-like plants indoors. 

Canna lilies will do well in colder climates, but you will need to bring them indoors during the winter as frost will kill them off quickly.

If given the right care, canna lilies will be a staple in your garden for years to come, flowering reliably.

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