Cultivating nostalgic cannas – Daily Express

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Cultivating nostalgic cannas
Published on: Sunday, December 19, 2021
By: Eskay Ong

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AT one time, the old style traditional plants were the selections of the staid, slow-moving and relaxing era. This is quite unlike the hybrids, cultivars and lines of today where a single variety may be crossed into so many colours, shades and forms, with plenty of streaks, speckles and tinges to varying degrees.  
These represent a huge windfall to the gardening enthusiasts who may be able to enjoy the beauty of the plants and flowers as well as partake of the fruits, leaves, bark, roots and stems if they are edible. Some of these features were maximised on by the generations of olden days.  

Another bonus is that many birds are attracted to verdant greens in the garden and while some may sing, tweet, chirp or cackle, others may build a permanent home there.
With the newer and more modern selections taking over the gardening scene, it does not mean the older ones can be consigned to the compost heap.  
Just like when younger executives are taking over the reins of the economy, it is not advisable to underestimate the power of the ambling and tottering baldies and oldies.  
The American Henry Alfred Kissinger may today be 98 years old, but his invaluable advise is often sought after by many others who have not gone through the experience of the grind.  
Similarly, the old style traditional plants may be aged but they are still firm, erect and steady without having the need to be propped up.  
One such plant is the nostalgic canna which many people tend to equate it to the old bygone days where the sound of mature dry fruits popping open and releasing the stone hard seeds is audible.

Flowers of golden yellow bells. The bright yellow is distinct even from a distance. 

Other flora of old include Plumeria obtusa with its white petals and yellowish tube, crotons with their colourful foliage, and even elder berries with their conspicuous white blooms.  
But just like orchids, these are the so-called never-boom-never-bust ornamentals that have been temporarily overtaken by other varieties that are basically just make-overs or re-imaged from a list of plants dug out from the closet and pushed out into the market with cute pots and lovely presentations. These little potties are now calling the shots while the traditional oldies are sidelined waiting for a strong comeback.
Nevertheless, the evergreen old style plants are considered as forever evergreen as they are still planted in pockets big and small everywhere in Sabah. Just look at canna and plumeria.  
They are visible everywhere. However, with cannas, there are multiple ways in which to display the plant or lay them out in attractive set-ups in the garden.  
They are even commonly cultivated on public grounds where the tough plant can last for a good many years without replanting. This is a bonus as there is no hassle at all to keep them growing, except that some maintenance is needed to encourage better foliage and more blooms.
Cultivating healthy cannas
Cannas are hardy perennials that can withstand a lot of neglect. Belonging to the family of Cannaceae, the genus of canna carries many varieties that bear differently coloured flowers, stems and leaves.  
As they are native to tropical and subtropical America, the plant therefore fits well into the climatic conditions of South East Asia, Sabah included. There are numerous varieties within the genus such as C. glauca, C. paniculata, C. indica and C. flaccida, among others. The latter variety is also tolerant of watery or very damp soil conditions, and as such, it is also sometimes described as an aquatic canna.  
However, C. indica is most closely linked to human activities as it is not only ornamentally attractive but is also widely used as a form of food.  
This edible variety of canna has long purplish stems with elegant narrow pale green leaves. At the tips of the terminals are borne the trusses of light yellow flowers which release a slight fragrance throughout the day. 
It produces long bulging rhizomes that appear to be like tubers and it is such structures that are harvested and used in various ways as an item of food.  
Fresh rhizomes or tubers can be easily harvested by lifting the entire clump, big and small rhizomes included. The fat bulging structures can be separated from the small ones, the latter of which can then be replanted to start new plants and colonies.  
After washing and cleaning the tubers, they can be sliced or cubed and then fried or baked into crispy biscuits.  
When dried and ground, a fine powder can be obtained which can be used to prepare dishes or else made into dough and then steamed, boiled, fried or baked, the end result of which is understood to be in the stomach. There are some countries that grow and produce such tubers on a large scale for food production for both humans and animals.
The height difference among the numerous varieties is also quite distinct as all cannas can be categorised into four groups, namely (1) the tall type which measures about 150-200 cm or taller, (2) medium type that measures about 100-150cm in height, (3) dwarfs which is about 50-100cm tall, and (4) dwarflets which stands at 50cm or less.
The best example of dwarfs is called The Seven Dwarfs. These are short plants with seven different flower forms and colours, and they are all of less than 100 cm in height.  
I planted the whole range of it many years ago, but to be honest, the local cannas that one sees around in the city are still the best as they produce the largest flowers and most colourful blooms with the most vigorously growing stands. So it’s all hail to the local cannas.

Green and red fruits. They appear to be like tarap fruits.  
Apart from serving as an item of food, cannas are of course best known as a flowering ornamental plant since ages ago. They can be seen growing well in far-flung locations such as isolated kampungs and small inhabited islands where the perennial growing habit of the plant ensures there is a place for them.  In this respect, its tough and hardy growth also contributes to its easy acceptance by anyone who wants to grow something that flowers.
Generally, cannas are most popularly grown in the form of bedding plants. The planting beds are usually made by staking out a dimension of 50-60 cm width and a length that may run from 3-5 metres, or even longer if it runs lengthwise along the border.
To get moving, it is necessary to dig up and loosen the soil along the entire bed.  In the process, all large chunks of stones or rocks, or other garbage must be taken out and discarded.  
Once the soil is fairly well loosened, it is necessary to add in several large handfuls of compost per square metre of area, together with a handful of organic manure and half of an NKP for growth. These are then thoroughly mixed into the soil to a depth of 20-30 cm.  After giving it a wetting, let the soil bed rest for a couple of days.
To start planting up the bed, it is necessary to source for the planting materials. The best form can be obtained by dividing or separating existing clumps of canna.  
Each chunk can be planted in directly at a distance of 50 cm.  Alternatively, a double row may be set in along the entire length of the bed in order to encourage a more rapid and thicker screening effect that comes with plenty of leaves and flowers.
For gardening enthusiasts who live high up somewhere, do not despair as cannas can also serve as large potted plants to brighten up balconies from the second floor and above.  
Sufficient balcony space is important as sunlight is necessary for better and healthier growth of cannas that can also show more luxuriant foliage and brighter flowers.  Normally, with cannas, the smaller sized pots are not recommended, but instead, the pot size should be about 40 cm and above in diameter.
Apart from the flowers, cannas also produce a lot of seeds which measure about 5-6 mm in diameter. These can be easily obtained when the mature fruit capsules start to dry up and shrivel, and in the process, releasing the seeds with a certain amount of expulsion.  
If the seeds are to be collected, never wait too long as they may be lost and scattered all over the place. Instead, it is necessary to be observant so that when the capsules start to split and curl up, quick action may help to collect a truly bountiful harvest.
Canna seeds carry a very thick seed coat and are extremely hard when dry. This makes it nearly impossible to germinate by itself even if the wait may take up to six months or longer. It is therefore necessary to scarify the seeds before any success in the germination of cannas can be expected.
In the old days, many seeds were collected and then converted for use as tiny bullets which were shot using wooden catapults.  
These were made using Y-shaped tree branches, the slings of which were made with strips of discarded inner tubes of cars or motorbikes. I can vouch that such a contraption made for a very accurate tool to take down a naughty bird or monkey, but such deeds are not encouraged. It is not difficult to imagine if such a canna seed bullet were to hit someone’s forehead.
Very often, canna leaves were also used decades ago in very constructive and environmentally-friendly ways as the use of plastic bags were non-existent or at most, extremely rare. For instance, the leaves of canna were used as a wrapper when dealing with foodstuffs such as tauhu or taukwa.  
They were also used with ready-cooked foods such as fried rice or beehoon.  Often a number of other alternatives such as the frond sheath of palms were also used. Therefore, shouldn’t natural wrappers be used more often?

Canna leaves are broad and oblong.
A heavily trampled bed of cannas showing signs of full recovery.

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