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   Sunday, July 12, 2020 

Vote for your Country in the Battle of the Islands! History and Background of Cannas

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Cannas are native to semi-tropical and tropical parts of North and South America. Their native range extends from North Carolina south to Argentina and includes the Caribbean islands. In their native habitat, Cannas live in damp shady locations along the margins of rivers and lakes.

Two modern common names for Cannas are 'Arrowroot' and 'Indian Shot'. The term arrowroot refers primarily to plants in genus Maranta, which is grown as a source of starch. Arrowroot has also been applied to many other starch-bearing plants including Canna, Zamia and tapioca. The term 'Indian Shot' refers to the very hard, pea-like seeds of Canna that have been used as shotgun pellets in India. The common name Canna Lily was applied to Cannas because of their large lily-like flower. However Canna Lily is a misnomer because Cannas are not related lilies at all.

Cannas are valuable as a food source in certain places because their rhizomes contain a high quality starch. The primary species used for food production is Canna indica. Canna starch has the largest starch granule size in the plant kingdom and is valuable as an industrial starch in processed foods because it has a low viscosity and does not break down during cooking and freezing. The starch (commonly called achira) is used in Vietnam to make high quality "cellophane" noodles. In its native Andean range, Canna is used as a source of starch during times of starvation. Because Canna is bland tasting, and mild on the stomach, it is used in many places to feed children and sick people. In the modern era of agriculture, Canna is only rarely used as a primary food source. It has been replaced by more nutritious and higher yielding crops like potatoes, and corn. However, Canna can be cultivated at higher altitudes than these other crops and is still used in certain locations. In some places, humans and animals consume Canna leaves, young shoots, stems and immature seeds. In India, Canna rhizomes are fermented into alcohol. Some people refer to the agricultural Cannas as Canna achira, Canna edulis or Canna discolor, but these are all invalid names for Canna indica. It has been cultivated as a food crop for over 4000 years in its native range in Central and South America. During the 1600's Cannas were spread around the world as a food crop and they are grown today in all tropical and subtropical regions.

In addition to food, Cannas have a variety of other uses. Canna seeds are pea-sized, round, brown or black in color, and exceptionally hard. They have been used as shotgun pellets in India (hence the common name 'Indian Shot'). The seeds are used as beads in jewelry, rosaries and are incorporated into baby rattles and musical instruments. A purple dye can be extracted from the seed. Fibers extracted from the stem of the plant are used to make jute and paper. Cannas have been used for phytoremdiation (the use of plants to absorb toxins from soils), in order to remove toxic heavy metals such as copper and zinc from pig waste, and to remove excess fertilizer and insecticides from greenhouse runoff. In Thailand, Cannas are a traditional father's day gift.

Although used for thousands of years as a food crop, Cannas were not well-known to European botanists until the 1500s. They are first mentioned in the book "The Vienna Codex" (written from 1536-1566). Cannas may have arrived in Europe from the Americas as early as Columbus's 1492 travels. By 1576 Cannas were cultivated in gardens in several European countries. However, they only became widely popular as ornamental plants in the Victorian era (mid to late 1800's). Cannas had a particularily large following in France, Hungary, England, Italy, Germany, America and India during the late 1800's. Hundreds of cultivars were created between the 1860's and the 1910's with shorter habits and novel flower forms and colors. Unfortunately, most of these cultivars were lost because European gardeners stopped growing Cannas during the upheaval from World War I through World War II. In addition, garden fashions changed. In the first half of the 20th century prominent garden designers, such as Gertrude Jekyll, replaced formal looking victorian gardens with informal, relaxed perennial borders. This led gardeners to largely abandon the plants used by the previous generation, including the Canna. However, starting in the 1950's, cannas have been making a slow comeback in gardens. Today they are approaching their Victorean era popularity. Modern breeders have been releasing some wonderful cultivars and today there are more than 2000 cultivars to choose from. Every gardener should grow at least one of the Cannas.

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