The Whistling Gardener's Column - Cannas, Bananas and Palms Oh My!

Now that it is almost June it is time to watch out for the bold foliaged, outrageous textured and just plain out-of-context plants that make people’s heads spin and do a double take when they see them.
Steve Smith has fun with the drama queens of the garden! Photo credit: Sunnyside Nursery website.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Now that it is almost June it is time to watch out for the drama queens of the garden. These are the bold foliaged, outrageous textured and just plain out-of-context plants that make people’s heads spin and do a double take when they see them in a northwest garden. They are a big part of creating drama and excitement in our gardens and in my book are indispensable in my summer designs. They are the “thrillers” in the “thriller, filler and spiller combinations” that make any arrangement successful.

There is no fun in playing it safe when it comes to garden design. Pushing the envelope and moving out of our comfort zones is what keeps me interested in gardening. And when it comes to plants, anytime I can find a plant that is so totally different I simply have to find a way to use it in my garden. If it is a hardy plant I will usually work it into one of my beds and if it is tender then it goes into a container that can be moved into a protected area for winter or just tossed out at the end of the season.

Cannas, bananas and palms fall into both the hardy and tender categories for us northwesterners. Windmill palms can be seen all over the Puget Sound region and once established are perfectly hardy. The Mediterranean fan palm is less so and the Mexican Fan palm will die for sure, at least up north in Snohomish County. Over the years I have also used Queen palms but they have to go in the greenhouse for the winter. I love the look of the Sago Palm and have one in a pot that comes out every June and back in for the winter.

Bananas also fall into two categories, hardy and tender. There are probably no less than six tender bananas that can be easily grown in our northwest summers but by far the most dramatic is the red leafed Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelli”. Every year I spend 40-50 bucks for a 5 gallon one, put it in a good sized pot and watch it double to triple its size over the summer. Lots of water and fertilizer is all it takes and it becomes the personification of drama in my patio.

Believe it or not there is a hardy banana we can grow here that comes back every year and forms a magnificent clump over time. Musa basjoo (also known as Japanese Fiber Banana) will grow 10-12 feet tall in one season and if protected for the winter will actually bloom the following season with the most exotic looking flower you have ever seen. This banana is the center piece of my tropical beds and astounds visitors every year. You simply have to see it to believe it.

Cannas, while hardy in a mild winter, are much like dahlias in that some gardeners have success leaving them in the ground over the winter and other gardeners pull them up and store them in a cool place until it is safe to plant in the spring. For me, the foliage of cannas are the focus and the flowers are secondary but either way the flowers come in hot tropical colors and the foliage can be green or yellow and green striped or various shades of dark burgundy to almost black. For the ultimate in drama look for Canna grande, a behemoth that reaches 10 feet tall by then end of summer.

Finally, summer drama isn’t limited to these three categories of plants. I love the look of Colocasia (elephant ears), both the green versions and the black and purple forms and papyrus, a water plant that grows just fine in potting soil. In fact, many water plants work as thrillers as long as you keep the soil consistently moist.

Now that it is June you should be able to find most all of these plants at your favorite garden center so go have a little fun with these truly dramatic plants and see if you don’t get a few heads to turn.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at


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