The history of the Canna National Collection

The initial interest in cannas

Keith Hayward developed an interest in cannas during the early 1980's. At that time he worked as an engineer in the aerospace industry, but he had a strong interest in gardening, and a large (30 ft) polytunnel in his garden. His main interest were fruit and vegetables. His first canna was an impulse buy of a pre-packed rhizome from a hardware store. This was variety 'Wyoming', which happens to be one of the tallest and best cannas (it has the distinction of receiving awards in both the 1906 and 2002 Canna Trials held by the Royal Horticultural Society). He planted this rhizome in the polytunnel among the tomatoes, and it grew to be a most spectacular plant with very dark leathery leaves and gorgious orange flowers, and it flowered all summer long. In subsequent years other varieties were added, C. indica, 'Lucifer', 'President' etc, until he was growing all the varieties then available in garden centres, at that time no more than maybe a dozen varieties. At that time cannas were grown in public parks and gardens, but rarely seen in private gardens. In retrospect, they appealed to him not only by their spectacular appearance, and the fact that they were rarely grown in gardens, but by their carefree cultivation requirements. No matter how much they are neglected they seem to flourish and flower.

At that time the National Collection was held by Ian Cooke, who owned a canna nursery, Brockings Exotics, in Cornwall, near Launceston. Brockings Exotics became a regular pilgrimage for Keith, and his wife Christine, and they developed a friendship with Ian.

In 1997, Keith started to use the Internet, and this opened up the possibility of exchanging cannas with collectors worldwide, but particularly with collectors in the USA. Soon the number of cannas in their collection (and in Ian's collection with whom Keith was liaising), began to escalate.

Start of canna sales, formation of Hart Canna

Realising that there were no suppliers specialising in canna rhizomes by mail order, Keith and Christine decided to start selling cannas commercially. Their mail order company, Hart Canna, was formed in 1998.

Not having the production facility to grow their own stock, they began by importing canna rhizomes from Holland. In their first year they found a grower in Holland who claimed to be able to supply them with commercial quantities of 50 named varieties. They dutifully purchased a large quantity, and began to sell them by mail order. In fact, the supplier had sold them just 10 varieties, but had given 5 different names to each variety! It was a case of blatent fraud, and was their first object lesson in dealing with the unsavoury sector of the Dutch horticulture industry.

The following year they visited this grower, who was not at all apologetic or abashed, and offered them some free stock for the subsequent year. Needless to say, they did not take up this offer. But they did find other good growers in Holland, and countries of Europe, and indeed other countries of the world, and for a few years enjoyed healthy supplies and good sales.

Start of Hart Canna Open Days

In 1999, in order to market their canna business, they began to open annual Open Day in their garden at Farnborough, both as a marketing exercise and also to meet their customers. They advertised this Open Day widely, both to their customers and to the trade.

The National Collection has continued holding this weekend of Open Days to the present day, which is always held on the Friday to the Monday of the Bank Holiday in late August. They charge a modest admission, and Christine arranges helpers to provide a flow of Cream Teas. From the proceeds they make a 10% donation to Plant Heritage.

Acceptance of "National Collection" status for the canna collection

Among their many visitors to their first Hart Canna Open Day was a representative from the head office of Plant Heritage (then the NCCPG), who suggested that they might apply for National Collection status for their canna collection. With the support of the existing Collection Holder, Ian Cooke, they submitted an application, and were accepted in year 2000 as members of the Hampshire Group. For some years there were 2 National Collections of cannas.

Legal challenge to Plant Breeders Rights of canna 'Tropicanna'

As new owners of a National Collection, they felt it was their moral duty to challenge the Plant Breeders Rights (PBR) that had been granted to the canna variety under the name Tropicanna (TM) (breeders name 'Phasion'). This is the most spectacular, the most popular, and the most "commercial" canna.

It was also a great source of concern for canna growers and enthusiasts because it was well known that commercial rights to this variety should never have been granted. The fact was that the same variety was already well known in the UK as 'Durban' before the application for PBR was made, which should have disqualified the application. Canna growers where prevented from growing and selling the best variety of canna except by arrangement with the owner of the PBR.

It took some time to collect the evidence for this challenge. In June 2002 the Keith submitted a formal "Petition" to the Community Plant Variety Office (CPVR), situated in Angers, France. After a daunting legal battle against stiff opposition and lasting 28 months, he eventually won both the legal case and the subsequent appeal. In 2004 (these legal matters take a long time) the PBR for canna Durban was declared null and void. This variety may now be freely propagated and sold throughout Europe (the rights are still in force in other jurisdictions including the USA). This case is reported in detail elsewhere on this website, (see phasion.html)

RHS Canna Trial 2002

In 2002 the Floral Trials Sub-committee of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) held a trial of cannas at the trials field at Wisley Garden. Altogether 152 cultivars were tested. As local National Collection holder of canna, Keith & Christine were invited to advise the committee on various aspects of canna cultivation and nomenlature.

Also, as commercial suppliers of cannas, Hart Canna submitted a number of varieties to the trial. Of the 28 varieties that received the RHS AGM Award, 9 were of those submitted by Hart Canna.

Canna Virus Disease

In the period beginning 1999 came the dawning realisation that canna virus disease was a serious worldwide epidemic. In the following years the relentless advance of this disease insidiously overtook the world of cannas. Each of the commercial growers of cannas in turn, in Europe, the USA, Israel, and other countries that imported or grew commercial quantities of cannas, fell victim of the disease until there were virtually none who were able to supply healthy stock. Private gardens, municipal plantings, public parks and gardens, fell victim to the disease, including the RHS, Kew Gardens, the Royal Parks in London, and many if not all others. Some businesses were destroyed, and others continued to sell diseased stock. Many collections of cannas around the world were destroyed or decimated.

Ian Cooke's National Collection of cannas was destroyed and was abandoned. The canna collection of Keith and Christine was badly affected, but survived in greatly reduced form (it was reduced from about 150 varieties to about 30 varieties). Their business, Hart Canna, also suffered very badly, and they largely stopped selling cannas for several years, but it survived, with just a few healthy varieties remaining in commercial quantities.

The great tragedy of this epidemic is that many cherished heritage varieties, collected and assembled over many years, have been lost, probably for ever. For example, of the 28 cultivars that had received awards in the 2002 RHS Canna Trial, 10 were lost to virus, and have probably been lost for ever.

During the darkest days of the epidemic, 2005, Keith & Christine were liaising with the DEFRA Central Science Laboratory in York (CSL) over the canna virus problem, and were able to supply CSL with samples of diseased plants not only from within the UK, but also from Holland, France, Belgium and Israel. CSL were able carry out research on these samples and discover that the virus causing the epidemic had not previously been described in the scientific literature. CSL published a scientific paper in 2007, reference: Arc. Viro.l (2007) 152 "Canna yellow streak virus: a new potyvirus associated with severe streaking symptoms in canna". This virus is believed to have mutated to cannas from a disease of grass "Johnsongrass mosaic virus" which also infects sugar cane and maize. In their paper, the CSL acknowledged the contribution provided by Hart Canna.

During this period, and to the present day, they were also publically campaigning to raise public awareness of this disease. This they did through their websites; through daily discussions with customers and canna enthusiasts via the telephone and e-mail; through their Open Days and visitors to see their collection and nursery; through exhibitions (particularly the Hampton Court Flower Show); though their frequent lectures to gardening societies; and through taking any opportunity to speak to horticultural journalists to try to ensure that they provided sensible information. They continue to do this, and are constantly battling 2 misconceptions about canna virus held by the public and by horticultural journalists. The first is a lack of awareness that the problem exists, and the second is the misconception that every and any leaf blemish is due to virus. Keith has a website, which aims to provide an on-line reference for this disease.

In 2004, as there was no source of healthy canna commercial stock, but also because of their interest in cannas, they purchased a nursery in Bisley, Surrey, in order to become commercial growers of healthy cannas, in great variety, and all correctly named. Previously, they had been growing cannas on 2 rented allotments, and they had also rented a commercial warehouse for the strorage of rhizomes. Their new nursery had previously been a conifer nursery (Lincluden Nursery), and while building their canna production they were able to continue selling conifers. At this time they formed the company Cannifer Ltd (the name, Christine's idea, is a combination of canna and conifer).

Gradually they restored both their collection and their commercial stock to full health. This they did by attacking the vector, which is the winged aphid, and by relentless culling of diseased stock, and by relentless searching for healthy specimens of cannas whenever they could be found. Their collection is now restored to some 150 healthy varieties and species.

Also, within the UK, they now see a high level of awareness of the virus problem among gardeners, suppliers, and public parks and gardens. They hope that this it partly through their efforts, both as publicists and as suppliers. In some other countries, such as the USA, there is not such wide public awareness of this problem.

International Canna Trial organised by the National Collection

In 2008, as holders of the National Collection, they held an "International Canna Trial". In particular it was a trial of new varieties. The impetus for this trial was an upsurge in breeding seen among amateur growers and some professional growers and breeders, as evident on the Internet. In hindsight, holding a trial at the height of the canna virus epidemic may not have been such a good idea.

This trial was organised during 2007. Initially the NCCPG gave their support to the trial, but later they withdrew that support. No reason was given for this withdrawal, but it followed within a few days of the RHS Floral Trials Sub-Committee becoming aware of this trial, which resulted in a flurry of phone calls. Nevertheless they continued with this trial, and canna collector and breeder Malcolm Dalebo enthusiastically joined in with the organisation. Malcolm is author of the Wikipedia pages on cannas. Ian Cooke, author of a book on cannas and RHS judge, agreed to be the judge.

59 Entries were received from 11 breeders in the UK, USA, Australia, France, Israel. During the trial, it became evident that over half the entries submitted had virus disease, and so were disqualified. Of the remainder many were very mediocre. It seems that some people who claim to be breeders do nothing more than sow a few seeds. It became evident that it was not worth continuing with this trial at the level of detail that they had intended.

However, Keith and Christine put the best varieties in a section devoted to the trial on their stand in the 2008 Hampton Court Palace Flowers Show, which received a Silver Gilt Award. The best varieties were deemed to be 'Golden Orb' bred by Jim Ranger of the UK and launched in 2005, 'Panama' bred by E Turc of France, and an un-named seedling bred by Agrexco in Israel.

Visits to Argentina & Bolivia

Cannas originate in the sub-tropical Americas, from the southern edge of the USA (climate zones 8 and 9), to Chile and Argentina. As canna enthusiasts they had always wished to see cannas growing in the wild. In 2008 and 2009 they had the opportunity to visit a plant enthusiast, Olga Dahan de Martel, in northern Argentina. Together with Olga, they searched for canna species in Argentina and parts of Bolivia. These countries also have many canna cultivars in the gardens, and many garden escapes growing in the wild. They were also able to make plant exchanges with Olga.

The following year they decided to base their Hampton Court exhibit on this visit. Olga has a smallholding of some 50 acres which she calls "Mi Campito". They called their stand Mi Campito, and made it look like the original. Olga is proud of her gaucho heritage, so Keith and Christine dressed as gauchos for the duration of the show. The RHS kindly tolerated this idiosyncracy.

Nomenclature issues

There are serious problems in canna nomenclature which would seem to be intractable. The National Collection holder can do no more than try provide publicity, and to offer guidance and advice on these matters. Such advice to date has been ignored.

Firstly is the problem of species nomenclature. Historically there have been some 200 species described in the botanical literature. Within the past few years taxonomists have radically reduced the number of valid species names to around 24 (see taxonomy.html). Unfortunately some invalid species names are deeply engrained in the horticultural literature. Even Plant Finder does not follow current taxonomic opinion.

The more untractable problem is the nomenclature of horticultural hybids. The foundations of cultivar nomenclature was laid down by the International Botanical Union many years ago. There were essentailly 2 aspects to hybrid nomenclature.

The first was a set of rules, published as the International Rules of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, now in its 9th edition. This publication stated such basic rules as "each plant variety shall have only one name", "the valid name is the original name". These rules have been totally ignored. The names of plant varieties are often changed, commonly as a marketing exercise. Another reason is to re-launch an old variety as a new variety. The offenders are the horticultural trade, and some of the biggest names are the worst offenders. The problem is that the international rules are not backed by law, to there is no disincentive to ignoring them.

The second was the setting up of "Official Registrars" to compile and maintain a register of variety names. A registrar was appointed for each plant genus. The registrar for cannas is the KAVB in Holland (The Royal Dutch Bulb Growers Association). The KAVB published an index of canna variety names in 1990. This was a momentous work, and described some 300 varieties at that time known in the literature. Unfortunately, canna breeders (with few exceptions) have ignored the requirement to register new varieties.

Conservation issues

If one follows the lead of RBG Kew, plant conservation issues comes under 3 headings: CITES, CBD, and Plant Health. To add to these is the Endangered Plant Project of Plant Heritage. How these relate to the National Collection of canna is stated below.

CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Endangered species are listed in 3 Appendices, I, II and III, according to the degree of threat. No canna species is included in any Appendix, so it is presumed that no canna species is under threat. It is of course possible that cannas are "beneath the radar", and that some canna species are under threat, it is just that this is not realised. Several canna species seem to be unknown in plant collections worldwide, and in botanical gardens. For example, the botanical gardens in Bolivia do not seem to hold the rare species which grow within their borders. The National Collection of canna are endeavouring to add species to their collection, and where possible to make them commercially available. see

CBD (The Convention on Biological Diversity). Its aim is conserving biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the equitable sharing of benefits. These fine words are quoted from the CBD website. However, I remain un-convinced that CBD does no more than hinder National Collections in building their collections. Without approval under the rules of CBD, our collection can not acquire species from their countries of origin. Yet when we approached RBG Kew, who seem to be the UK authority on CBD, they were unable to help us in obtaining such approval. When we approached the government of country of origin we got nowhere, at least to date. The focus of CBD seems to be that the country of origin holds the commercial rights to species that grow within its borders. They claim commercial rights in perpetuity, unlike Plant Breeders Rights, which are limited to 25 years. We do not see how this commercial feature of CBD principles relates to plant conservation. see

Plant Health. Any movement of plants across an international boundary legally must be accompanied by a Phytosanitary Certificate, issued on behalf of the government of exporting country, to provide assurance that the import is healthy. That statement, as it relates to cannas, is quite false. If we, as collection holders, wish to send cannas overseas, then we must arrange 3 inspections by DEFRA inspectors (each of which must be paid for). The first is a visit to collect a soil sample to be taken away and analysed, the second is a growing season inspection to ensure that our plants are visually healthy, and the 3rd is an inspection of the particular items to be exported to ensure that they look clean and healthy and are not carrying any "bugs". Similarly, if we wish to import cannas from another country, these same inspections and certifications must be made in the exporting country. But the inspections are not looking for canna diseases at all. They are looking for diseases of potatoes! In 2009 Hart canna imported a large consignment of cannas from Israel. They were accompanied by a Phytosanitary Certificate and so there must have been a soil test, a growing season inspection, and a visual inspection of the rhizomes. But when we grew them we discovered that they were all badly infected with canna virus disease, which would have been fully apparent to the Israeli Govenrment inspector making the growing season inspection. We submitted a formal complaint to DEFRA stating that the Phytosanitary Certificate had been wrongly issued. "Not so" was the formal reply. "Canna Virus is not a notifiable disease". So it quite ok for the Israeli governemnt inspector to see a field of diseased cannas, and sign the certificate to say they are healthy!

Plant Heritage Threatened Plant Project. For every plant genus, Plant Heritage assesses the rarity of individual cultivars using Plant Finder data, and checks this information against cultivars held in collections. Based on this infomation a list of threatened cultivars can be compiled. So far as cannas are concerned, the varieties listed in Plant Finder are questionable because some suppliers claim to hold varieties which they do not hold. Indeed, some suppliers claim to hold many varieties when actually they hold very few or none at all. Also, in the case of cannas, many cherished varieties have been lost due to the the virus epidemic. Hart Canna are actively working on building a list of threatened plants, and also plants that have been recently lost, and this will be supplied to Plant Heritage in due course.