Canna indica: Indian shot

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Wayne's Word Noteworthy Plant For June 1998

Canna indica: Indian Shot

Seeds Shot From Guns?

One of the most commonly used beads in natural seed jewelry comes from a beautiful wildflower of the Caribbean region and tropical America. It is commonly called "Indian shot" (Canna indica) and it belongs to the mostly tropical, monocotyledonous Canna Family (Cannaceae). This lovely wildflower is common along roadsides and open fields throughout the West Indies and Lesser Antilles, especially near cultivated gardens, often growing with dasheen (Colocasia esculenta--Araceae), tannias (Xanthosoma atrovirens--Araceae) and bananas (Musa acuminata=M. x paradisiaca--Musaceae). [Note: the previous aroids are grown for their starchy tubers or corms, while the banana is grown for its starchy, sweet fruit.] The spherical black seeds of Indian shot are so hard and perfectly round that they resemble oversized BB's or buckshot from a shotgun shell. In fact, they are so dense that they readily sink in water. Under a hand lens the seeds are minutely-pitted, like the surface of pocked metal. The seeds are called "Indian shot" because of their superficial resemblance to lead shot ammunition of the 18th and 19th centuries. Although WAYNE'S WORD has no definitive proof of this, the seeds may have been used in flintlock muskets when lead shot wasn't available. Throughout tropical regions of the world the shiny black beads are strung into earrings and necklaces, often as spacers between larger beads or mixed with silver trinkets and gemstones.

The BB-like seeds of Indian shot (Canna indica) and an 18th century blunderbuss. It is possible that seeds of Indian shot were used in flintlocks such as this when lead pellets were scarce or unavailable.

Most Indian shot used in seed jewelry probably comes from the seeds of Canna indica, a common Caribbean wayside wildflower that is naturalized throughout the Old and New World tropics. According to Peter Francis (1984), this species is also used for necklaces and rosaries in India. The seeds of a similar tropical American species (C. coccinea) are also used as beads. There are at least 50 species of Canna in the world and undoubtedly some of these are used for beads; however, Canna indica has some of the most uniformly-round, BB-like seeds. In many hybrid cannas in cultivation, the seeds are more oblong-shaped.

The small BB-like seeds of Indian shot (Canna indica) are commonly used in seed bracelets and gold earrings. The oblong canna seeds in foreground are from cultivated hybrid species. The large, marble-like seeds are yellow nickernuts (Caesalpinia major). The red and black seeds are rosary beads (Abrus precatorius) and are extremely toxic if thoroughly chewed and ingested. The small, brown, flat seeds are from a common roadside shrub called wild tamarind (Leucaena leucocephala). The elongate seeds are from a tropical leguminous tree with enormous bean pods called royal poinciana (Delonix regia).

Indian shot is a robust perennial herb up to three feet (1 m) tall that grows from a thick, branching, underground rhizome. The large green leaves taper into slender petioles that form a sheath around the main stem. Unlike the numerous cultivated varieties of domesticated cannas (Canna x generalis), with showy yellow, orange, pink or red blossoms, the flowers of C. indica are much smaller and typically only come in red. Cannas are popular cultivated flowers in tropical and temperate gardens because they produce some of the world's most beautiful and exotic blossoms. The unique flower has three small greenish sepals (appearing like bracts), three green or colored petals, and five (or fewer) very showy petaloid false-stamens called staminodia. The large, colorful staminodia form the main showy part of the blossom that people associate with petals. Very hard, BB-like seeds are produced in bumpy, papery capsules after the blossoms have withered away. Because of their dense, woody seed coat, the seeds need to be scarified and soaked in water prior to germination. According to The Wealth of India (1973), the seeds are bored for necklaces before ripening.

Indian shot (Canna indica) in full bloom near the town of Portsmouth on the island of Dominica. Cultivated hybrid cannas have much larger blossoms that come in several brilliant colors, including red, yellow, orange and pink.

Canna indica was originally named by the eighteenth century Swedish botanist Carl von Linne, usually known by his latinized name of Carolus Linnaeus. Linnaeus apparently thought this species was native to India--hence, the specific epithet of indica. Some older references list this species by the synonym C. coccinea. Another similar species listed for the lovely island of Dominica is C. lambertii, but this name does not appear in most of the more recent botanical references for the Caribbean region. Indian shot has many common names throughout the New World tropics, including canna lily, calenda, English shot, Queensland arrowroot, and the Creole name of "toolima" which is derived from the French "tous les mois." It is also known by the French name "balisier rouge."

The name "Queensland arrowroot" refers to a South American species, Canna edulis, known locally as "achira" and "tous les mois." Achira is grown in the Andes for its starchy, tuberous rhizome which is boiled and eaten. In Peru the rhizomes are baked for up to 12 hours after which they become a white, mucilaginous mass with a sweet taste. At Cuzco the baked rhizomes are sold at the festival of Corpus Christi, and in Colombia they are ground into flour and made into cakes. The easily digested "arrowroot starch" comes from the dried, finely-powdered rhizomes. As its common name implies, C. edulis is also grown in Queensland.

The thick, underground rhizome of arrowroot (Canna edulis), a South American species known as "achira" and "tour les mois." The starchy rhizome is cooked and ground into arrowroot flour.

The more commonly known arrowroot of the Caribbean comes from the starchy, tuberous rhizomes of Maranta arundinacea, a member of the Arrowroot Family (Marantiaceae). The powdered starch is removed from pulverized rhizomes by washing the pulp into tanks where the starch settles out. Arrowroot starch is commonly sold in the spice sections of supermarkets. It has a variety of uses, including an easily digestible starch for children. Like corn starch and flower, arrowroot is an excellent thickening agent for gravies and other foods.

Arrowroot starch from the tuberous rhizomes of Maranta arundinacea (Marantiaceae) is comonly sold in the spice section of markets. It makes an excellent thickening agent for foods and is a key ingredient in many recipes.

Many references allude to the fact that Indian shot "may" have been used in muskets; however the authors are very careful not to commit themselves. It is well documented that various hard objects were used as ammunition in the blunderbuss, a remarkable flintlock short gun with a flared, trumpet-like muzzle. During the days of pirates and masted sailing ships the blunderbuss was a lethal weapon at close range. Peppercorns (the hard, dried berries of black pepper) were also reportedly used in some flintlocks and occasionally in shotguns.

The BB-like seeds of Indian shot (Canna indica) and a blunderbuss. During the days of pirates and masted sailing ships the blunderbuss was a lethal weapon. It is possible that seeds of Indian shot were used in flintlocks such as this when lead pellets were scarce or unavailable.

At the WAYNE'S WORD firing range, we replaced the lead pellets of a low-velocity 12 gauge shotgun shell with seeds of Indian shot. Note: This questionable practice is NOT recommended for safety reasons and because it might damage your barrel. At a distance of 10 feet (3 m) the seeds made a gaping hole in quarter inch plywood, and some of the seeds were practically unaltered by the blast. In our opinion the seeds could have been used in a flintlock if other ammunition wasn't readily available.

The deep impressions and gapping hole in this quarter inch plywood were made by seeds of Indian shot (Canna indica) placed in a 12 gauge shotgun shell and fired from a distance of 10 feet (3 m). Four seeds recovered from the shotgun blast (right) were still intact.

Whether Indian shot was used in flintlock guns is difficult to say with certainty. But through the ages, the shiny black seeds of this plant have earned the reputation as one of nature's hardest and most durable botanical beads.

References About Indian Shot

  1. Armstrong, W.P. 1997. "Indian Shot." The New Forester 9: 32-33. [Dominica Ministry of Agriculture]

  2. Armstrong, W.P. 1995. "Indian Shot." Ornament 18: 70-71.

  3. Armstrong, W.P. 1993. "Botanical Jewelry." Herbalgram 29: 26-33.

  4. Armstrong, W.P. 1992. "Jewels of the Tropics." Terra 30: 26-33.

  5. Bourne, M.J., G.W. Lennox and S.A. Seddon. 1988. Fruits and Vegetables of the Caribbean. Macmillan Publishers Ltd., London.

  6. Facciola, S. 1990. Cornucopia: A Source Book of Edible Plants. Kampong Publications, Vista.

  7. Francis, P., Jr. 1984. "Plants as Human Adornment in India." Economic Botany 38: 194-209.

  8. Gade, D.W. 1966. "Achira, the Edible Canna, Its Cultivation and Use in the Peruvian Andes." Economic Botany 20: 407-415.

  9. Honychurch, P.N. 1986. Caribbean Wild Plants and Their Uses. Macmillan Publishers Ltd., London.

  10. The Wealth of India. 1948-1973. Raw Materials, Vol. I-X. Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi.

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