We have the climate and the know-how to nurture this tropical and exotic plant, says Fiann Ó Nualláin.
I like the big exotic foliage of canna plants, whenever I get to landscape a tropical bed they are the ‘go to’ plant to get the jungle effect — especially when combined with banana plants.
Their big vibrant fiery orange to scarlet red flowers also bring the exotic glow and they are truly stunning in a mixed border too. They have the nickname of Indian shot as the seeds look like musket pellets and are hard enough to fire from some old guns – but don’t try that at home — even if your great-great-uncle mutinied in India for Ireland.
Cannas are in fact a relative of banana and the thing is they are also like bananas – edible – not the fruit though. The substance is the root. Known in many places as Arrowroot — but just to note true Arrowroot is a different plant — Maranta arundinacea.
Some varieties of canna are more edible than others and by that I mean less fibrous and easier to use. The main edible variety is Canna edulis known in South America as Achira (pronounced ah-cheer- ah or thereabouts) — expect it on a superfood list anytime now. It’s another of the ancient Inca food crops making headlines for health benefits and sustainable nutrition purposes, but one we can grow easily.
I like the fact that we can eat our garden – most of what I personally grow is edible or medicinal – but that’s a choice for now. Perhaps in the future, if climate change is unabated or food prices hike dramatically over some catastrophe, then we actually may need to become more creative with the sources of our dinners and our medicine too. Canna — so familiar to dramatic borders and municipal park displays — may take a new role.
If you are ever lucky enough to take a stroll around any marketplace in Peru or Ecuador, you will readily find canna roots for sale as a starchy staple. They are also hugely popular in Vietnam and other Asian regions where the starchy crop is becoming popular formulated into noodles. In South America, it is used as a root vegetable.
I won’t say it’s as great to my palate as another Peruvian special – the potato — but it’s cooked similarly. And perhaps my garden grown crops lack some technique or climatic intervention to bring out deep flavour (I got a slight sweetness which was pleasant) but as the potato showed us, many ‘new world’ crops took to the ‘old world’ and even took over.
So, maybe in time we will have a whole diversity of tasty edible cannas. Some people favour canna root raw (not recommending it – taste or at least chew-wise), and for others it is rendered into flour for baking and as a thickening agent to soups and stews.
The young shoots can be eaten as a green vegetable too, and the immature seeds also have some edible potential, but now is the time for lifting cannas, so let’s stick with the roots.
The roots are a good carbohydrate and the arrowroot is traditionally obtained by mashing and rasping the root to a good pulp, then rinsing and straining and drying to digestible (similar to cornstarch), and functional starch (If you need those collars stiffened).
I experimented with boiling it and then with baking it and while the latter took a fair length of time to cook through, it was quite sweet potato-ish for the long slow cook. I now
favour the roasting method.
I’m not saying I eat it regularly, it’s just it’s an option I have. It’s an option we all need to know about. It’s not about expanding our taste experiences – but why not – it’s more about the notion of sustainability or self-sufficiency. Having options in your backyard that prevents a drive to the shops, and another plastic bag you will forget to bring with you next time.
On the bigger picture level: Look how the potato revolutionised the world. Look how breadfruit, coffee, vanilla etc moved regions to set up global demand and global economies.
Already we have an Irish business making a huge success with a Peruvian crop: Pat FitzGerald nurseries – of the delightful ‘MyPlant’ range of architectural foliage plants in your local garden centre – are producing sweet potato plants, (Ipomea batatas), in Co Kilkenny and exporting all across Europe. Go Ireland!
Amongst many great food crops, Pat also grows and exports Yacón
(Smallanthus sonchifolius) and Oca
(Oxalis tuberosa), two species from the territory where Cannas thrive. So it’s possible to have more than a specimen or two and indeed yield a crop. However you’d want to dip a toe or swim the channel – we can with cannas and other unusual foods. We have the climate and we have the knowhow.
So while Cannas are perennial, as a rule, they are grown in Ireland as if an annual or half-hardy. If you are growing it as a food crop then there is no fuss about getting it beyond the six months gestation period of the tubers, lift in autumn and save a few tubers for next year and enjoy the rest of what you have harvested. The deeper and more fertile the soil the more prodigious the yield.
It’s often advised that cannas are planted in full sun, but in fact they are what is technically known as day-length neutral — basically from shade to sun, and they do their thing anyway. They like a moister soil or regular watering, are easily propagated by seed, rhizomes and clump division and perfect for a permaculture set up, allotment or a pretty border that gets periodically harvested. And their beauty alone is worth a place in any garden — food source, or no.
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