How to Plant, Grow and Care For Canna Lilies

Have you decided to plant some canna lilies this season but aren't quite sure where to start? Canna Lilies are beautiful flowering plants, that can grow quite tall. In this article, gardening expert Paige Folely walks through everything you need to know about canna lilies and their care.

grow canna lilies

Struggling to find a plant that can withstand direct sunlight in the heat of summer? Canna lilies are an excellent option. Because they are native to tropical regions, they love direct sunlight and intense heat.

Canna lilies are not true lilies like the name says. They are a part of the cenaceae family and the only genus that flowers in that family. The name Canna comes from the Latin word for cane or reed. They produce a cluster of flowers atop of the reed-like stem that is similar in appearance to a lily.

Canna lilies make excellent additions along borders of garden beds, along the sides of buildings and even on your patio in a container. They bloom from mid summer till the temperatures drop below freezing. Their blooms attract butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. They are even deer resistant!

So, if you’ve decided to add them to your garden this season, there are a few things to consider. Depending on your hardiness zone, they may take a little more work than your average perennial. Let’s take a look at some details for growing beautiful, lush canna lilies in your garden!

Canna Lily Plant Overview

Plant Type Perennial
Family Canaceae
Genus Canna
Species 100 +
Plant Spacing 12 inches +
Native Area North and South America
Sunlight exposure Full sun to partial shade
Plant height 2 to 8 feet
Water requirements High
Plant Depth 2-3 inches
Hardiness Zone 3-11
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Rich, moist
Pest Canna leaf roller, Japanese Beetles
Attracts Hummingbirds, Butterflies, Bees

Origin

Tall flowers against blue sky
They native to North and South America, have an exotic looking and are popular for their hardiness and resilience.

Canna lilies are native to North and South America. They have been used by native Americans in these tropic regions for thousands of years.

They have been grown for centuries all across the world. Canna Lilies were once prized plants in Victorian gardens because they were so exotic looking. They fell from grace as gardeners choose more traditional plants with softer color blooms. Recently, they have gained popularity because of their hardiness and resilience.

Characteristics

Yellow-orange Canna Lily
Canna lilies have large green or purple foliage and showy flowers in a variety of colors.

Cannas are known for their large green foliage and dramatic blooms. These perennial flowers can grow quite large, with some varieties reaching heights of 8 feet or more. With their giant stature, these beauties are sure to bring a pop of color and dramatic height to any garden bed or container.

There are two categories of canna lilies, dwarf and giant. The dwarf varieties have a max height of 3 to 4 feet and giant varieties reach heights of 8 feet or more. Dwarf varieties are excellent in containers or in low garden beds. Giant varieties look best along a building or the edge of a garden.

The blooms come in an array of colors from pink, red, orange and even black! There are a number of varieties that will display more than one color on its petals. They are continuous bloomers so you will be able to see their flowers all summer long.

Their foliage can vary some as well. Depending on the variety, the leaves can vary from green to purple or a combination of both! There are a few varieties that have pink and white veins and are very eye-catching. They are known have very large leaves and are great at filling the location that they are planting in.

Canna lilies are an excellent addition to a pollinator garden. They attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. They are not toxic to pets and naturally deer and rabbit-resistant. This makes them a great choice in rural areas where deer and rabbits eat everything!

Hardiness Zones

Pink Canna Lilies growing in the garden
These tropical plants thrive well in zones 3 to 11.

Understanding your USDA zones is important in understanding canna lily growth. They are hardy in zones 3 to 11. This is a huge range for a plant and means that anyone can have a chance to grow them.

Although they are classified as a flowering perennial, depending on your zone they are more of an annual. Harsh cold temperatures affect their ability to regrow in the spring in certain zones.

If you live in zones 3 to 7, the winters are too harsh and you will need to lift your canna lilies in the fall. This is an easy process which is discussed in more detail below. They do well in these zones which is surprising for a tropical plant.

In zones 8 to 11, you will not have to lift them. You can simply leave them in the ground and they will regrow in the spring. They will flourish in these zones because the sunlight is more intense and typically have warmer temperatures comparable to the tropics.

When to Plant

Bright flowers in flower pots
It is recommended to start planting after the last frost.

Figuring out when to plant your canna lilies can be tricky. If you live in USDA zones 3-7, you will want to plant after the last frost for the season. If you plant too soon, there is a risk of the rhizomes freezing and dying.

A great guide to follow is to watch when tulips bloom. Once the tulips bloom, the risk for frost is typically past and you can start planting.

If you live in zones where you don’t have to replant, they will begin to sprout in the spring. Give them extra water a few weeks before they sprout to help hydrate the rhizomes and encourage growth.

If you want to get a head start on the season you can plant in a container 4-6 weeks prior to the last frost. Keep them indoors with adequate light and moist soil conditions.

Once soil temperatures increase and the fear of frost has past, remove them from the container and transplant into the desired location. You can leave them in the container and simply place them outside in your desired location.

Where to Plant

Tall flowering plant growing in the center of the garden
Cannes lilies prefer to grow in the hottest part of your garden in full sun.

Let’s take a look at the best locations to start planting. The more heat the better for these tropical plants. When considering a location, look for the hottest part of your garden. Most plants can’t handle the summer heat but canna lilies will thrive!

They prefer full sun but will survive in partial sunlight as well. Their foliage is prone to damage from wind so consider a location that will provide some protection for foliage. Planting along the borders of a garden adds some height. Consider planting along the side of a building to add some color.

Dwarf varieties are an excellent choice for patio containers. You can plant giant varieties in containers but you will need a very large container to support growth. Dwarf varieties only get to about 3 or 4 feet tall and will give your container some height. Plant with cascading annuals for beautiful, full containers that will bloom all summer.

If you have a pond or water feature, they can grow wonderfully around the edge. They will give your pond or water features a tropical feel. There are a few varieties that have a tendency to grow better near water.

‘Cleopatra’ is a great choice to grow near water. They produce interesting blooms that range from red to yellow and can produce patterns or more then one color per cluster.  At 2 to 3 feet tall they produce green to purple foliage that isn’t going to cover your pond or water feature.

Another variety is ‘Phasion’ , which is a giant hybrid that produces a variegated leaf. The blooms of this orange canna lily are a sunset orange. These giants will bring some variety to a sea of green in any garden.

How to Plant

Cannas seedlings planted in the garden
It is recommended to plant Cannes about 2-3 inches deep and at least 12 inches apart.

Once you have chosen your location, it’s time to loosen the soil. This will help make planting easier. Once you’ve loosened the soil, dig holes or trenches about 2 to 3 inches deep.

If you have dug holes to place your canna lily rhizomes be sure they are at least 12 inches apart. We don’t want to overcrowd the rhizomes. If you have dug a trench, when placing the rhizomes in the trench and be sure they are 12 inches or more apart.

Once you have planted, place the soil back over the rhizomes and begin watering heavily. They will need a lot of water during sprouting to help hydrate the rhizome from the overwintering process.

If you choose to grow in a container, there are a few things to consider. The size of the container is very important. There needs to be enough room so the rhizomes don’t become overcrowded. If they become overcrowded, they will stop growing and producing blooms.

Size of the variety of canna lily is important when you begin to plant. Giant varieties need more space because they have a tendency to get very large and spread rapidly. Consider plant giant varieties further apart. Dwarf varieties take up less space but can still spread rapidly under ideal conditions.

Growth & Maintenance

If you are in the correct hardiness zone and have the proper timing down, Canna Lilies are not necessarily difficult to grow. They do require a little more upkeep and TLC than other plants, but they do have the same basic needs. Let’s look at each important individual aspect of their growth before you get started.

Light

Pink Flower blooming in full sun
They will perform their best in full sun for at least 6 hours a day.

Sunlight is a canna lilies’ best friend and makes a difference in bloom production. Don’t worry, they do tolerate location with less sunlight but this could affect growth. For best results, plant them in full sunlight.

They will still grow in partial shade or at least 4 hours of sunlight. If you choose to plant in partial shade, they will not grow or bloom as quickly. This isn’t to say that they won’t grow or bloom at all.

 Four hours of sunlight is the minimum amount to have healthy canna lily growth. Choosing the best location will increase your chance of seeing beautiful bloom from summer to fall.

Your hardiness zone will determine how much sunlight they need per day. USDA zones 8-11 experience more intense light. This means they will still grow in 4 to 6 hours of sunlight.

Northern regions of the United States in zones 3-7 experience less intense sunlight. If you live in these zones, consider planting in full sun or at least 6 hours of sunlight for best growth.

These are recommendations of sunlight requirements for optimum growth. I have canna lilies planted on the west side of a large shed. They receive about 5 hours of sunlight per day. They are still putting out more shoots and blooming beautifully.

Next year, I plan to plant more rhizomes to create a fuller look since they don’t receive full sun to promote rapid growth.

Water

Canna Lily with water drops after watering
Water canna seedlings thoroughly and regularly until they sprouted.

Spring planting has the highest demand for watering. The rhizomes have been in storage all winter and need to be hydrated. After planting, be sure to soak the area thoroughly with about 2 to 3 inches of water. Continue to water thoroughly until they have all sprouted.

Once they have sprouted, you can water a little less. One of their best qualities is their tolerance for some slightly dry conditions. This is rather surprising for a tropical plant. If your region is experiencing drought-like conditions, consider watering more frequently.

Watering once or twice a week with an 1 to 2 inches of water should be sufficient during the summer months. Continuously check your soil for moisture. Your soil moisture is a great indication on whether you should water or not.

More water translates into more foliage and blooms. Be sure they get enough water and pay attention to signs of overwatering or underwatering.

Underwatering Signs

Here are a few signs if your canna lilies are underwatered.

  • The leaves will begin to crack and  tear at the veins.
  • Dry, curling leaves.
  • Yellowing and droopy leaves.

Even though they love water, you can still overwater them. There are a few signs to look for if you think you might be overwatering. Diseases can develop because of sitting water on the leaves. Be sure to water at the roots to help prevent leaf diseases.

If they sit in soils that are too wet, the rhizomes can root and growing will cease. Root rot is very common. Be sure they have well-draining soils to prevent rotting.

If your soils don’t want to hold onto moisture consider adding mulch. There are a number of materials you could use for mulch. Wood chips are an excellent choice and they will also help control weeds. Dead leaves and grass clippings are great options as well. Consult your local greenhouse for other options that are available in your area.

Soil

Canna Lilies planted in the soil
Make sure the soil is well drained and contains a high level of organic matter.

Soil plays a large role in how your canna lilies will grow. They prefer soils that are rich, well-draining and high in organic matter. If your region does not have this soil type, don’t worry!

There are ways to help improve your soils to foster canna lily growth. If your region has sandy or clay soils, consider adding organic matter. Adding organic matter such as dead leaves or grass clippings will help hold onto nutrients and water through the growing season.

If you have sandy or clay soils, consider fertilizing on a regular basis. This will provide the proper nutrients to thrive until fall.

If you are planting in a container, use a preferred potting soil. Remember, the container needs to be large enough to ensure they don’t become overcrowded. You can add dead leaves, grass clipping or kitchen scraps to your pots for a boost of nutrients.

Fertilizer

gardener holding nitrogen fertilizer
If your soils do not contain nutrients, then take care of applying organic fertilizers.

Fertilizer is not a necessity for canna lilies but can be beneficial. If you have sandy or clay soils in your region, these soils leach nutrients out and leave little for plants. If your soils have a tendency to leach nutrients, consider applying fertilizer.

However, there are other options if you aren’t keen on applying any fertilizer. You can simply choose to add 2 to 4 inches of organic matter instead. Organic matter can be compost, dead leaves, grass clippings or kitchen scraps. Once these materials break down, you can incorporate them into your garden. This organic matter will create rich, nutrient dense soil to help promote growth.

If you are interested in applying fertilizer, consider a 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 fertilizer once a month from spring till fall. Follow all written instructions on the packaging for proper application and rate amounts.

Deadheading

wilting plant in garden needing a deadhead
Cut off faded flowers so the plant can redirect its energy to produce more flowers.

Canna lilies are naturally self-cleaning. This means that once the flowers are spent, they fall to the ground. This is a great quality because it’s less time spent in the summer heat cleaning your flowers.

When all the flowers in the cluster are finished, they will begin to produce seed. If you don’t want to collect the seed, you can cut the finished cluster from the stock. This will allow the plant to focus its energy on producing more blooms.

If you want the canna lily to go to seed, do not remove the spent cluster from the stock. The seed will be in watery capsules on the stock. If you open a capsule, you will find small and dark seeds. You can collect these seeds to plant in the spring or allow them to fall to the ground.

Propagation

Canna lily green seed pods
You can collect seeds from your Cannes to propagate the plant.

Canna lilies grow from rhizomes which have eyes similar to potatoes. Propagation can occur in the spring or fall. It’s the same process no matter what season you choose.

In the spring or fall, lay your rhizomes out and start dividing into sections with at least 2 to 5 eyes per rhizome. The more eyes a rhizome has the greater the potential from shoot and bloom production.

Propagating by seed is difficult but not impossible. Most varieties produce seed and you are able to germinate the seed with a little patience.

If you choose to grow canna lilies by seed, here are a few steps to help them germinate.

  1. You will want to soak your seeds in water for about 24 hours.
  2. This helps break down the thick seed coat and indicate germination.
  3. Scarify the seeds. This means damaging the seed coat to indicate germination.
  4. Place into potting soil that’s kept at a consistent 70° to 75° F until germinated.
  5. Don’t get discouraged if it takes a while!

Climate

red flowers blooming in the garden
These tropical plants are highly adaptable, but they prefer climates with high temperatures and humidity.

Don’t be fooled by the description of this plant being tropical. They are excellent at adapting to your region’s climate.

Canna lilies are versatile but definitely have a preferred climate. The ideal climate is high temperatures and lots of humidity. In these conditions, they will thrive. Bloom production will be abundant.

If you live in regions where temperatures are averaging 80° F during the summer, canna lilies will still grow well. Temperature is only a portion in the overall plant production.

As we talked about earlier, watering is the building block to great-looking plants. Some regions experience regular rainfalls and others do not so much. They will grow in drier regions but will require more frequent waterings.

Popular Varieties

Variety called Lucifer in garden
‘Lucifer’ produces bright red flowers with golden edges.

Here is a list of a few popular varieties to consider for your garden. There are many different hybrids that come in different sizes and colors. You can’t go wrong with any choice.

  • ‘Black Knight’ has dark purple to almost black foliage and the blooms are a beautiful deep red.
  • ‘City of Portland’ displays its rich coral-pink bloom from mid summer to late fall.
  • ‘Phasion’ has deep purple leaves with green and pink veins and bright orange blooms.
  • ‘Lucifer’ is one of the shortest varieties, blooming with candy apple red petals and a golden edge.

Overwintering

blooming flowers in the garden
Depending on the zone you live in, you will need to pick up the rhizomes in the fall to overwinter them.

Overwintering isn’t as intense as it sounds. If you live in zones 3-7, you will need to lift your canna lily rhizomes in the fall. If you live in zones 8-11, you can leave the rhizomes in the ground and they will regrow in the spring.

 This is an important step during winter maintenance. If you don’t lift them from the ground they will not regrow in the spring. The rhizomes are sensitive to colder temperatures and will die if they experience freezing soil temperatures.

Once the first frost has killed the foliage, trim the foliage off to make it easier to dig the canna lilies. Using a hand spade or shovel, dig around the area and lift the canna lily rhizomes from the soil. Remove soil from the rhizomes and discard any that appear rotten or damaged.

Once you have all your good rhizomes, place them into a large totes or heavy duty trash bag. Find a cool, dark place to store over the winter months. Some great storage locations are an insulated garage, unfinished basement or cellar.

Don’t place in barns or sheds as these typically aren’t insulated. These types of buildings generally fall below freezing and will kill the rhizomes.

If you have planted in containers your job is easy. Once the foliage has died from cold temperatures or frost, remove the dead foliage a few inches above the soil surface. You can leave the rhizomes in the soil and store them in an insulated garage or unfinished basement. They will regrow in the container once placed outside in the spring.

Common Problems

rust on the Canna leaves
While they are considered disease resistant, leaf rust is still a common problem.

One of the top qualities about canna lilies is the lack of problems they have. Now with that being said, there are still problems that can arise. If it’s mid-summer and you have yet to see blooms, here are a few reasons why and solutions to fix it.

A common problem is overcrowding during planting. Because they spread as they grow, the rhizomes can become crowded. When this occurs, new shoots aren’t able to grow and will die. Overcrowding will hinder the growth of more shoots later in the season.

You can thin them out by digging up a few rhizomes around crowded areas. This will help control the spread and help ramp up new growth. During the spring, remember to leave plenty of space for spreading.

Root rot is very common if soil conditions are too moist. They don’t like pooling water around the roots. If pooling water occurs for a long period of time root rot can develop. Well-drained soils are ideal but they can tolerate drier soils for short periods of time.

Occasionally, rust will develop on the leaves. This is more common in southern regions of the United States. The signs of rust are yellow to tan pustules on the leaves or stems. If you notice rust, simply remove the infected leaves from the plant. This should help control the spread of the rust.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do they spread during growth?

Yes, they will spread as they grow. The rhizomes continue to grow beneath the soil surface. As the rhizomes grow, new shoots will begin to emerge.

Can they be grown indoors?

Yes! Canna lilies can be grown indoors with adequate light, temperatures and soil conditions. Be mindful of the variety as some can get very tall.

Why aren’t my canna lilies flowering?

Take a look around the area you’ve selected for planting. Does it appear overcrowded? If so, remove some shoots or dig up a few sections of rhizome. Another reason they aren’t flowering could be not enough sunlight. Remember, they prefer full sun but will tolerate a minimum of 4 hours.

Final Thoughts

Bring the tropics to your backyard or garden with these versatile beauties. With dense foliage and dramatic blooms in many colors, you simply can’t go wrong planting canna lilies. Not many plants can take the hot summer heat but these guys thrive in it. An excellent choice for any gardener, they are easy to care for and will surely have people turning-heads. Good luck and happy planting! 

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