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Out of Chaos a Mystery Plant is Born

By Larry Rettig (LarryROctober 24, 2010

It's June 1998. I'm sitting in my office in Iowa City staring at the radar on my computer screen. Outside a ferocious storm is raging. The noise from the storm is deafening and only intermittently do I hear the wail of emergency sirens above the roar.

Gardening picture

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 11, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)  

With some reluctance, I head for the basement of my building. Once there, I find hardly any of the building's occupants assembled. Nearly everyone is standing inside the front entrance, mesmerized by what they see outside. There is so much wind, water, and debris that the other side of the street is totally erased from view.

After the storm passes, my concern shifts to South Amana and our home.  I could tell from the radar screen that it had passed over all seven Amana villages as well.  A call from my wife, Wilma, confirms my worst fears.  She tries to prepare me gently for what awaits my return.  Although the workday is not yet over, I yield to the overwhelming urge to get home as quickly as possible.

Wilma had spared me the most gruesome details on the phone.  So extensive was the damage to our yard and gardens that debris covered our two-story house from ground to rooftop!  From the street, the house was completely invisible.  We had lost 13 trees, two arbors, and a fence.  Many of our beds looked like giant tossed salads.  A huge branch from our neighbor's ancient ash rested on our rooftop.  A good portion of an equally ancient maple in our front yard landed on the garage roof and nearby fence.  Despite all the debris, the only damage to the main house was to a small portion of the roof where the ash branch came to rest.  That our house withstood sustained winds estimated at 150-200 miles per hour is a testament to those who built it in 1900 with huge oak and walnut timbers and a double-walled brick exterior. 


Only a small portion of the roof (top left) is visible as clean-up begins.


              Damaged arbor


        Daytime view out kitchen window

In an instant Mother Nature had transformed us from shade gardeners to sun gardeners.  After the initial shock subsided, we actually began to relish our new role.  Sunny gardens, we soon realized, offered a whole new range of plants to try.  There was one plant in particular that fascinated us.  It sprouted among the new blades of grass in the soil that landscapers had used to fill the gaping hole in our front yard where the maple had stood.  Curious, I dug the seedling out carefully, potted it up, watered it, and placed it in a sunny spot.

I grew more incredulous each day as I watched the mystery plant unfold its new leaves.  Could it be?  It's not possible, I concluded again and again.  But as the days passed, my disbelief dissolved and was replaced by total amazement.  It was a canna!

Now there were new questions.  Which canna was it?  How did it get here?  Most likely, the seed and the soil came from someone's garden where cannas had gone to seed.  Was it an Iowa garden and, since cannas are tropical plants, could the seed actually survive an Iowa winter?

As the plant matured, it produced huge leaves with a maroon-colored edge.  The stems and the midribs of the leaves were similarly colored.  What a beautiful plant, I thought, even when it's not in flower!  The flowers turned out to be small and bright scarlet, much like those of species cannas I had seen in the South Pacific.
If you happen to be a canna connoisseur, you've most likely already identified the mystery canna as Canna musifolia, the Banana Canna (Latin musa = banana, folia = foliage; see photos at top and at right).  Its common name comes from the very large leaves resembling those of a banana tree.  In fact, everything except the flowers on this plant is super-sized.  When in bloom, the plant can stretch skyward to 12 feet and its vigorous rhizomes (underground horizontal stems) are among the largest of any canna variety.

So can the seed really survive an Iowa winter?  Absolutely!  After frost had killed the tops that first fall in 1998, I cut and hauled them out to our vegetable garden for eventual burning.  I carried the pot, rhizome and all, to our basement for winter storage.  One day the next spring my wife called me to the vegetable garden as she was hoeing weeds.  "I've never seen this weed before.  What is it?"  Again, I couldn't believe my eyes.  It was the Banana Canna popping up here and there amid the rows of vegetables!  Some of the seed from last fall evidently had not only escaped the flames but had survived the winter as well!

If you don't mind the task of storing the rhizomes over winter and planting them again in the spring, Canna musifolia is definitely a "WOW!" plant for your garden.  It's not bothered by disease and only needs watering during extended dry periods.  Its rhizomes grow prolifically.  Hummingbirds love it.

Even though I've been giving away musifolia rhizomes now for nine years, I'm running out of room in our gardens to grow these prolific plants.  Truth be told, I have an ulterior motive for writing this article...  Banana Cannas, anyone?

© Larry Rettig 2008






  About Larry Rettig  
Larry RettigAn enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and itís still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Although our garden is private, it's listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s. For more info: Photos that appear in my articles without credit are my own.

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