Fiery Tropical Perennials

Cannas have to be nurtured indoors over the winter
Tom Dakin’s cannas are taller than he is. DurelL Godfrey photos

Tom Dakin considers himself an ordinary gardener, but for more than 30 years the part-time North Haven resident has cultivated an extraordinary tropical flower — the canna lily.

Canna lilies are bold perennials native to Mexico and they are not often planted here, even as annuals. Mr. Dakin, who taught himself to garden over the years, loves their brilliance and has managed to keep the same plants alive year after year. And, as if they were his own offspring, the cannas move with him as he changes residences — five times in the last eight years alone.

Mr. Dakin uproots the cannas when the summer sun begins to yield to the autumn chill, and he nourishes them indoors with heat and moisture during the winter and early spring. He takes them outside each year when the time is right.

“I had this investment in the cannas. . . . I wasn’t willing to just let the roots die,” he said from North Haven recently. “It’s a little bit of a menial task that takes half of a day to pull everything up. I kind of bed them down in peat moss in whatever kinds of containers I have available. I was able to keep them going, so they’re still with me.”

This summer, eight groups of lilies dotted an already distinctive wetland landscape behind the waterfront North Haven house Mr. Dakin shares with his partner, Susan Dusenberry. The landscape itself was the creative work of the late garden designer Jack deLashmet. Not wanting to disrupt the layout, Mr. Dakin spread the lilies in pots rather than plant them.

Some of the canna lilies grew to heights of five and six feet or even taller this year, indeed, taller than Mr. Dakin himself. They burst into fiery orange, intense crimson, and sweet pink, surrounded by thick clusters of broad leaves, reminiscent of banana leaves, in shades of emerald green, yellow-green, or violet. 

Canna lilies bloom later than most other flowers here, so they “add something after the initial rush of salvia or roses have run their course,” Mr. Dakin said. Internet-based guides say they thrive in hot, humid weather and full sunlight. They are supposed to be deer resistant, and they attract hummingbirds and pollinators. 

Contrary to the name, though, the canna is not really a lily. It belongs to a species that includes ginger and bananas, and some, or at least parts of some, are edible. Furthermore, its “blossom” is not really a blossom; it is a stamen.

 They “add a bit of color to the garden. I relate to it by appreciating the color in the tableau and the palette of what exists here. It’s part of the bigger picture; the setting here is beautiful,” Mr. Dakin said.

Canna lilies first caught Mr. Dakin’s eye when, as a New Yorker, he spent weekends at his house on North Main Street in East Hampton. He taught himself a thing or two about gardening, and would browse the flower catalogs in search of something special.

“Things grow, and year on year, when you have perennials, they take up more space and you have to keep working with that dynamic in order to balance things. It’s a constant process,” he said.

Mr. Dakin unloaded most of his furnishings when he and Ms. Dusenberry decided to move in together several years ago. Save for some chairs that had been in his family a long time and personal mementos, his mature cannas are now his oldest possessions.