"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Scarlet Red Canna Lilies

Scarlet Red Canna Lilies

From “Canna” in Bulbs and Tuberous-Rooted Plants: Their History, Description, Methods of Propagation and Complete Directions for their Successful Culture in the Garden, Dwelling and Greenhouse (1893) by C. L. Allen:

“Although the Canna is not a bulb, it is always associated with bulbs. It would seem out of place anywhere else, and a list of bulbs would appear incomplete without it, as would any collection of ornamental plants. But few plants are better known than the Cannas, and few less appreciated. Because of [their] free-growing habit, thriving under almost any circumstances, they are generally grown without care and in a manner that does not, in any degree, develop their beauty or usefulness….

“Although a swamp plant, it will thrive most luxuriantly in dry soil, if made rich. For large groups on the lawn, for planting against fences or unsightly places it has no equal in the list of ornamental plants. One of its great attractions is that it will grow anywhere, and always ornament its surroundings….

“Whether in clumps or in rows, the plants will completely cover the ground, forming an impenetrable screen when planted at that distance apart.”

From Understanding Color in Photography by Bryan Peterson and Susana Heide Schellenberg:

“Years ago, Kodak was fond of telling photographers to ‘put a little bit of red in your compositions and the world will notice.’ This is because red is the most advancing color. It immediately comes forward to grab the viewer’s attention, no matter where it is in the composition. In fact, all warm colors — not only red, but also orange and yellow — advance. Cooler colors, such as blue and green, recede, falling into the background. By combining advancing and receding colors, you can make your subject pop and add depth to your image.”


The official name of the plant in these photos is: Cannova Bronze Scarlet Canna Lily. The hardiness quote above — from a book published in 1893 — is certainly appropriate, and I’ve grown a couple of different canna varieties in large pots in my courtyard. They’ve done quite well that way, and, possibly, will get a new location in the ground next spring where they can spread superiously without any potted constraints. They don’t seem to care too much whether they have a lot of sun or a little, and I’ve even grown them in my pond — where they’ll come back for several years (though the pond gets only limited filtered sunlight), as long as we don’t have a hard freeze (and maybe even if we do).

Canna flowers have always seemed odd to me — not unattractive but with a somewhat alien looking structure. Only about half of the flower petals ever fully open, and, unlike, say, irises, I don’t find interesting things to photograph from different camera angles. They all look alike to me, regardless of how I approach them, so I don’t photograph them that often. The leaves captivate me more; and as you can see in the second trio of photos below, they open with a distinct uncurling effect, growing rapidly in the first few days while showing off stripes of red, orange, yellow, and green. The leaves seem to glow — especially in morning light — and I suspect they may have evolved that extra luminosity to attract pollinators.

I took the first three photographs early in the day, and the last four in late afternoon — then studied how their red color (which is pretty intense) varied between the first and last. The color red can be a challenge to photograph and process “correctly” (search for Why is red hard to photograph? if the subject interests you), but I noticed right off the bat that the morning photos seemed cooler in color than those taken in the afternoon; and, indeed, Lightroom shows much more yellow (or orange as a blend of yellow and red) in the histogram and color panels for the last four. I don’t think this necessarily means that morning light produced cooler colors than afternoon light (one of the many color photography questions for which you can find the exact opposite answer from different websites (see Is morning or afternoon light warmer?)) — but more likely occurred for other reasons. You see, my canna lilies are in front of a patio table with a large umbrella over it, and in the morning there’s more shade on the cannas than in the afternoon — because the sun rises over the back of the umbrella but sets toward the front, allowing more sunlight to ray on the plants as the day progresses. So, short version, in the afternoon there’s more white/yellow light on the plants, which desaturates the red and highlights the orange, since orange is often within the color ranges of anything our eyes dub as “red.”

That’s all pretty nerdy, I suppose, but it can be fun to try and sort out why colors appear the way they do — especially when dealing with natural subjects where color emerges at the molecular level, but our eyes tend to ignore distinctions and focus on dominant shades. If I asked you “what color are these flowers?” — you wouldn’t say that they’re red with a bit of orange and some flashes of yellow and maybe even some blue… you would simply say: “They’re red!”

I recently learned color production in plants is called biological pigment, and their pigments are segregated into different categories based on the colors those plants produce (see What Makes Flowers So Colorful for an excellent overview). Red, as it turns out, produces highly reflective wavelengths, which in part accounts for how excessively saturated it often appears to our eyes and our cameras.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


  1. Hi Dale – the ‘20’s seem like a good time to feature calla lilies, they seem to have been very popular in the 1920’s in gardens, arrangements, art & crafts, etc. I think your shots of the leaves are as nice as those of the flowers.

      1. Dale

        Same thing happened to me when I was typing the post; seems like “canna” wasn’t in whatever dictionary the browser uses (sort of like “hosta” which often gets auto-corrected to “hasta” or “haste” … for some reason!


    1. Dale

      I found this bit of canna history, which does a nice job of teaching me a few things while it traces how the plant made it into European gardens. American adoption of some of the plants the Europeans hunted down and popularized seems (very generally) to have followed by a few decades, so the 20s is probably about right. Sort of like how we had an “American Victorian” period that was quite a few years after the Victorian Era in Britain… ‘cuz we were busy with other things, I guess….


      Thanks for the comment!

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