“Big, brash, bright and gaudy, cannas could be described as the clowns of the plant world. Most are not discreet; they flaunt their big floppy leaves in the breeze, and their huge flashy flowers stand proud and bold at the top of giant ramrod stems….
“If we could take a time-machine back a hundred years, we would find that cannas were highly fashionable and widely grown in both large and small gardens. Times and fashions changed and they lost their appeal but once again they have regained their popularity and are now talked about and grown by keen gardeners in many countries. Their exotic foliage and multi-coloured flowers have awarded them a new and well-deserved status as easy garden plants with instant appeal.
“The name is derived from the Greek kanna, meaning a reed-like plant. Cannas are sometimes referred to as ‘canna lilies’, although they have no relationship to the lily family: the word is merely used here to suggest a large, exotic-looking flower….
“Cannas are tropical plants, essentially natives of the West Indies and subtropical areas such as South America, where they are found in both mountainous and lowland areas. However, as ornamentals, they have been developed mainly in the temperate climate of Europe. As such, they have, over the years, been selected to be tolerant of a wide range of conditions and, provided a few basic requirements are understood, they are easy and rewarding to grow.”
Last year, I posted a few photographs of Canna blooms from Canna Lily ‘Cannova Bronze Scarlet’ — plants named that way, I imagine, because of the bronze/gold stripes in their leaves and deep scarlet/red flower petals (see Scarlet Red Canna Lilies). They grew and bloomed well into December 2022, but then mostly melted away during our winter deep freeze. I had four of them at the time, two in large pots in my courtyard and two in my pond. One of those in the pond survived — surprise! — and is still growing though did not produce any flowers this year. That Cannas will grow in ponds is perhaps not as well-known; but one of my nearby garden centers was selling some as pond plants, and they seem to do well in plastic pots filled with aquatic planting media, submerged just below the surface of the pond’s water.
I tried to find the same variety again (because I really liked the bronze-striped leaves), but wasn’t successful so bought these orange-flowered ones instead. They’re called Canna Lily ‘Cannova Orange Shades’ and feature dark green leaves with yellow highlights, and various shades of orange and yellow throughout their flower petals. Even the blooming youngsters — as they start to emerge in the shape of some alien’s claw — show the bright mix of orange and yellow that will eventually fill out their flowers.
As a photographic subject, Cannas can be challenging. The blossoms are large, complex, top-heavy structures that tend to flop around in the slightest breeze and will bend the entire plant nearly to the ground after a rainstorm. To represent them at various blooming stages, I’ve included photos of unopened flowers below, along with some that are (mostly) fully opened, and a couple of photos at the end where unopened petals are revealed from a lower angle below a partially opened flower.
“[Lantana] is not particular as to soil, provided the exposure is sunny, and also that the soil is well supplied with moisture at least until a fair growth has been made. When well established the plants do not seem to mind drought, and continue bright and attractive in the hottest weather. They should not be transplanted out in the open before danger of frost is over. If the old plants are wanted for propagation, cut them back and transfer to pots early in September, and when they start into new growth the soft wood will furnish cuttings that root easily. Keep young stock in a warm position through the winter months, and repot in April….
“Save the old plants, after frost has nipped their freshness late in autumn, prune severely back, remove them indoors, giving them a temperature anywhere above 40 degrees, and with a little attention and fresh soil, every plant will be a perfect specimen, covered with blooms in May.…
“Gardeners train them into fine standards, as prim and shapely as need be.”
“This family consists mainly of shrubs and trees, and many herbaceous members of the family are slightly shrubby in growth. Most of them have square stems and leaves in opposite pairs, and most of them are distinctly aromatic, having a strong smell when handled or crushed, sometimes a pleasant scent, and in some cases a disagreeable odour. One of the best known species in this country is Lantana camara, a straggling, very prickly bush, originally introduced from America; this has spread widely over large areas of the country and is now declared a noxious weed. It has quite pretty, circular heads of orange and red flowers followed by black berries, but it is held responsible for a number of cases of cattle poisoning. It is also encroaching rapidly onto grazing lands, and an effort is being made to eradicate it entirely.
”Lantana angolensis is an erect, unbranched plant of up to fifty centimetres in height, flowering early in the year, and common in woodland clearings and on waste land. The stems are square, hairy, and woody towards the base, and the leaves grow on short stalks, either in pairs or in whorls of three around the stem. They are narrowly oval with a slight point, evenly toothed around the edges and hairy on both surfaces. The tiny, bright mauve flowers are borne in axillary and terminal clusters, half a dozen or so in a cluster surrounded by a ring of green bracts, the whole on a short, hairy stalk. More noticeable than the flowers and more attractive are the juicy, bright purple berries which follow them; these are much enjoyed by many kinds of birds.”
“One unwelcome side effect of the myriad transfers of plants and seeds around the world is the translocation of ‘invasive’ species. Plants arriving on foreign shores with an agreeable environment and a lack of predators have often quickly become naturalized. Those also encountering a ready pollinator or suitable means for dispersing seeds have been able to spread rapidly. In some cases, the new conditions have made the plant much more successful in its new locale than in its indigenous habitat. When a plant becomes disruptive to native flora in a particular location, it is deemed invasive….
“The brightly colored flowers of Lantana camara made it a popular garden flower in Europe when it arrived there from Central and South America. As the colonial powers expanded into the tropics it, too, became widely dispersed. Today, it is considered a problem in at least 50 countries. Since it was introduced to South Africa in 1880, it has invaded natural forests, plantations, overgrazed or burnt veld (grassland), orchards, rocky hillsides, and fields….
If you spend any time researching lantana, you’ll quickly find that in various parts of the world, it’s considered a seriously invasive species — owing in part to its rapid growth, entangling brush, and how its brush becomes woody and hard to cut as seasons progress and it spreads. The quotation above from Carolyn Fry’s The Plant Hunters above is one example, where she describes how it has impacted the Galapagos Islands flora, and it was my first encounter with a description of the plant’s potential impact on a avian species, the seabirds known as petrels.
As I’ve photographed and written about lantana each year, I’ve tried to learn a bit more about it with every post. If you’d like to peruse my other coverage of its invasiveness, its appearance in literature and film, and different ways I’ve photographed it, this tag — lantana — will take you to all my prior posts.
“The first order of business for a flower is to attract the attention of potential pollinators…. To attract pollinators, flowers use visual and/or chemical bait, or often both. Both chemical and visual cues can be outside our human perception, but technology can help us ‘see’ and ‘sniff’ like a pollinator.
“Visual cues include flower color and movement. Often the contrast of the color against the foliage is important, along with the contrasting colors within the flower. The vision of the animals plays a role in the evolution of flower colors. Hummingbirds have vision similar to ours, but bees do not. Bee vision is shifted toward the shorter wavelengths, so they see UV but not red. Research has shown that bees have a preference for blue flowers, which they see very well. Hummingbird-pollinated flowers are often in shades of red, which means that the flowers are mostly ignored by bees (although honey bees can learn to forage on red flowers). Hoverflies prefer yellow flowers. Flowers pollinated by nocturnal animals (bats, hawk moths) are typically white, which shows up well in the dim moonlight….
”Some plants supplement the color display of their inflorescences by surrounding their flowers with colorful bracts as in poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) and dogwood (Cornus florida)… Others supplement the display by holding onto old flowers, but to prevent pollinators from visiting these spent, unrewarding flowers (and depositing precious pollen), pollinated flowers turn a color different from that of virgin flowers. Pollinators quickly learn the difference….
The word “lantana” always reminds me of the word “banana” — but I’m not convinced that there are any members of this plant family properly called “Lantana Banana” even if it seems there should be. I did purchase two shrubs of an almost-banana annual variety called Lantana Bandana Red in May and potted them both, but they never produced any photographically suitable flowers. It may have been too bloody hot for too long, even for heat-tolerant lantana. Maybe they’ll try again next year; annual lantana sometimes comes back here, often for two or three seasons before they decline to return.
If there was such a thing as “Lantana Banana”, I could imagine it being incorporated into The Name Game song, as “Lantana Banana bo-bana, fee-fi-mo-mana” and so on. You’re probably familiar with The Name Game — originally written and performed by Shirley Ellis — which was incorporated into an American Horror Story episode by the same name. A delightful song-and-dance performance by the cast took place in an insane asylum, led by Jessica Lange as her character was prompted out of a stupor by another character — one named “Lana Banana!” I mean, that’s SO close!
These lantana are from one border of my courtyard, in a spot that gets plenty of morning sun and some filtered light in late afternoon to early evening. They’re Mary Ann Lantana (officially Lantana camara ‘Mary Ann’) — and I’ve had them for more than a decade. I didn’t know if they’d survive the freezing temperatures we had over the 2022 Christmas holidays, but the plant did bounce back if a bit smaller than usual, producing about a dozen clusters of their late summer blooms.
I was intrigued to find the quotation above about lantana color changes and what that means to pollinators. I always wondered why some of the flowers faded from multicolored to soft pink (reducing the number of colors and making sterile or previously pollinated flowers less visible to pollinators) — and now I guess I know!
“One day a group came by bicycle; there were two women and a man, and two children. They parked their bicycles in our driveway and lay down on our front lawn, pulling at the grass and talking while they rested. The children ran up and down our driveway and over and around the trees and bushes. This was the day that we learned that the vines were growing over the burned roof of our house, because one of the women glanced sideways at the house and said that the vines almost hid the marks of burning….
“We learned, from listening, that all the strangers could see from outside, when they looked at all, was a great ruined structure overgrown with vines, barely recognizable as a house. It was the point halfway between the village and the highway, the middle spot on the path, and no one ever saw our eyes looking out through the vines.”
“The storm above them flashed down another series of bolts and then moved on away. Once again there was only the rain, which rapidly cleared the air of the charred smell, and in a moment the three remaining men were sitting and waiting for the beat of their hearts to subside into quiet once more.
“They walked over to the body, thinking that perhaps they could still save the man’s life. They couldn’t believe that there wasn’t some way to help the man. It was the natural act of men who have not accepted death until they have touched it and turned it over and made plans to bury it or leave it there for the jungle to bury in an hour of quick growth….
“Even as they stood over the body it began to vanish, for the vegetation was edging in upon it, little vines and ivy and creepers, and even flowers for the dead.”
“Ahead of them is the roadway leading through the forest. Untrimmed branches reach into the corridor of light above it, opportunist weeds push into it from the margins, renegade vines overhang it. Out of the swelling foam of vegetation the curved dome rises like the white half-eye of a sedated patient. It must once have seemed so bright and shining, that dome; so much like a harvest moon, or like a hopeful sunrise, but without the burning rays. Now it looks barren. More than that, it looks like a trap: for who can tell what’s hidden in it, and what’s hiding?”
“They emerged into the atrium, into sun so bright they blinked against it. The room was like a forest. Nearly every surface was choked with fat green vines; in the center a stand of palms reached toward the open ceiling. More vines dripped from the exposed struts of the ceiling, like coils of living rope….”
“The deserted village had so sunk into the natural landscape of the coast that I did not see it until I was upon it. The trail dipped into a depression of sorts, and there lay the village, fringed by more stunted trees. Only a few roofs remained on the twelve or thirteen houses, and the trail through had crumbled into porous rubble. Some outer walls still stood, dark rotting wood splotched with lichen, but for the most part these walls had fallen away and left me with a peculiar glimpse of the interiors: the remains of chairs and tables, a child’s toys, rotted clothing, ceiling beams brought to earth, covered in moss and vines.”
For this post, I took a few of the grapevine photos from the previous two posts (see Plant Entanglements (1 of 2) and Plant Entanglements (2 of 2) and reprocessed them on black backgrounds. Lightroom keeps making it easier to get good results with this technique, and yet there is still a bit of tedium associated with each one. As precise as Lightroom masking can be, I always end out cleaning up around the fine edges of each element of the photo, once I decide which parts to keep and which parts to smother in darkness. As with other repetitious tasks, the mind wanders while the brushes flow — and I started wondering about how often I’ve seen vines represented in apocalyptic scenes in books and movies, where they’ve taken over buildings and cities.
While I usually lead off each of my posts with quotes from poetry or nonfiction books about plants, nature, gardening, or photography, this time I went a-searching my collection of fiction books for references to vines. A lot of my fiction reading occurs in the dystopia, science fiction, or horror genres — this is probably because I first read Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was a baby — yet I was still surprised at how often nefarious vines appeared in these books. The five quotes above are just a small sample; scary vines, apparently, strike many writers as darkly metaphorical — and as especially potent symbols of nature reclaiming civilization.
Botanically, the appearance of vines swallowing a cityscape would indicate a fairly advanced stage of reforestation. Vines would certainly not appear at the outset; they would, instead, be preceded by a variety of plants generally known as rosettes — small plants with leaf structures at ground level — whose growth helps create conditions for later, larger plants to take hold in the soil. Vines would probably show up around the time that shrubs and the first shoots of future-trees appeared, but the vines would have the distinct evolutionary advantages of rapidly growing upward as they reached for the sun, attaching to and climbing any structure they encounter, and “outrunning” plant-eating animals. That they evolved to avoid herbivores is probably speculation; but, hey, why not, let’s give them their agency.
With a little bit of “googling” I was surprised to discover a robust body of research on plants and the arts. Try searching for phrases like “plants in movies” or “plants in literature” if you’d like to see what I mean. The last search led me to this article: Plants and Literature — a fine overview of the subject — which covers both historical references to plants in prose and poetry, and also connects to contemporary movies and books. Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins and the 2008 movie by the same name (where (spoiler alert!) the vines consume the humans) and Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation, also adapted into a movie (where humans get blended into plant-person hybrids, among other astonishing things) are both mentioned. Vines have at least co-starring roles in both books and both movies — but their visuality is more flagrant in the movies. A fun comparison could be made between those books and films, and that of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House — where there is only one incidental reference to a vine, yet the various movies based or loosely-based on her book typically feature threatening attack-vines twisting among the woodwork of the house and capable of doing-in the human interlopers.
What is it about vines that get so much literary attention? Vines, grapevines, and ivy are often potent religious symbols, and also frequently represented in cemetery garden designs and funerary art (see Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister) — so culturally, and across cultures, that gives them some special oomph. Many vines get designated as invasive species; yet those same vines can be purchased at garden stores in tiny pots and transplanted into our gardens. On one hand, we can’t control them; on the other hand, we think we can. My own property features about five different vine varieties that I subsequently learned are considered invasive in the southeast, including English ivy and wisteria — both of which I only find “personally invasive” (that’s not really a thing) when I get behind on my landscaping and they do what they naturally do: try to take over anything they can get their tendrils on.
Eighteen years ago — as a new homeowner and extra-amateur gardener — I thought the wisteria growing near one back corner of my house was just delightful, until I realized that in a few summer weeks it had grown up the side of the deck, along the back walls of the house, and into the attic through a roof vent. Me and the wisteria got in a fight after that: I pulled about fifty feet of vine from the attic and cut the rest back, then thought I might be better off to down it entirely… which I tried to do by sawing through the vine’s ten-inch-diameter base, and, failing to make much more than a dent, went to Home Depot and bought a trellis for it instead. For the vine, in other words, the battle was won.
Similarly, after a multi-year drought afflicted the southeast around 2008, a new vine appeared embedded within the English ivy in my front yard, a plant I’ve not been able to identify but is probably a creeper variation, based on its behavior and appearance. Its leaves are tiny — the largest ones only an inch or two wide — and it produces skinny, strong, and fast-growing stems that are both self-entangling into a pyramid shape and will wind themselves around individual English ivy leaves or any plant, tree, or shrub they encounter. While it dies off every winter (its only redeeming characteristic), it’s become one of my summer rituals to get rid of as much of it as I can, since it will choke off the ivy if I let it. To the English ivy then, this anonymous vine, I imagine, is an invasive species. To me too!
So I suppose some of our darker experience with vines — especially invasive or obnoxious ones — is about our uneasy relationship with nature: we want to tame what will not be tamed, but we keep trying anyway. Their silent violence and tenacious exuberance affords them a special place in literature and film, considerably more prominent than just setting the mood or establishing the scene. Given their unique abilities — especially that of rapid growth (that seems to happen as we watch); their ability to envelope large structures and landscapes (see, for example, kudzusmothering trees near Atlanta); and their tendency to be only temporarily manageable — they can be twisted into a powerful metaphorical choice for books and movies.
Maybe there should be a separate Oscar category for Best Vine in a Feature Film….
Wasn’t that fun? See what happens when my mind wanders!