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Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Katsushika Hokusai is probably Japan’s most famous artist.  His woodblock print of a wave breaking in the foreground with Mount Fuji in the background is almost universally known and has been reproduced everywhere (and his erotic print of two octopuses dallying with a nude pearl diver is almost as famous).  Today however, we feature one of his woodblock prints about drama at a smaller scale. A snake and a pheasant are engaged in a mortal battle beside a canna flower.  I will let the swirling, slashing drama of the composition speak for itself and only add that the snake is a mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffii) a highly venomous pit viper of Japan.  Pheasants generally eat snakes, but the contest does not seem to be going that way in this tableau and the sinister mamushi seems to be gaining the upper hand.

Miscellaneous ornamental cannas

Miscellaneous ornamental cannas

Canna is the only genus in the family Cannaceae.  The genus consists of 19 species of flowering plants from the tropical and subtropical regions of the New World.  Although sometimes called “lilies” they are not true lilies at all–their closest relatives are the bananas and the arrowroots.

Aquatic Cannas as the Centerpiece of a water garden at Longwood Gardens

Aquatic Cannas as the Centerpiece of a water garden at Longwood Gardens

Canna flowers are notable for huge colorful stamens—the highly modified structures of which are mistaken for petals (cannas actually have tiny easily overlooked petals).  Although cannas are a rich source of starches, they are predominantly known as ornamental flowers and they are grown as annuals far outside of their native tropics. They are popular around the world, and indeed they have become invasive in Old World tropical regions of Asia and Africa.

Red Canna

Red Canna

My roommate and I went to the flower nursery and she insisted on buying a canna (which I then thought looked vulgar and tacky) for our shared garden.  Yet the canna has proved itself a worthy garden plant many times over.  Not only are its pretty flowers an unrivaled shade of fire-engine red, it is also vigorous in the sweltering July heat and it beautifully matches the giant green elephant ears which I have planted.  The garden looks strangely tropical and magnificent with these exotic yet hardy plants.  Maybe next year I will be looking for cannas of additional colors.  It is a really lovely flower. I am sorry I initially dismissed it because of its unusual shape!  There’s probably some sort of lesson there…

I wish this were my garden!

I wish this were my garden!

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