"THE LANTANA GROWS IN POPULARITY" scream the headlines of the 1937 New York Times Gardening section. "Grow Lantana for Your Butterfly Gardens!" or "Best Lantana Selection in Florida!" announce current gardening resources. If you haven't grown this colorful, easy-care annual, maybe it's time to learn more about it.
Lantana has been around so long and cross-breeds so easily that it's difficult to ascertain, even with today's research, where exactly it originated. Certainly, L. camara, a shrubby, upright form and L. montevidensis, a prostrate, trailing form, are native to South and Central America and the Caribbean, with L. horrida considered a Texas wildflower (also known as L. urticoides, referring to the urticaria or rash that some people get from the sap). Some sources refer to an Old World-type lantana, but like tomatoes and chocolate, Lantana seems to have crossed the Atlantic with Europeans.
Lantana camara was first described by Linnaeus in 1753. Lantana remained a hothouse species in Europe, but Europeans brought it with them everywhere on the globe they explored.
And L. camara and L. montevidensis, the upright and trailing forms, were quite easy to interbreed. SO easy, in fact, that at this point it is hard to tell them apart. To say that L. camara tends to be an upright multi-colored variety and L. montevidensis a sprawling, yellow or purple one is to overlook the fact that the two have been interbred for centuries. And breeders are STILL coming out with exciting new color combinations of Lantana every year that are more heat-tolerant, or bushier, or can tolerate an unexpected cold snap without die-back.
Really a tender perennial, Lantana can survive forever in the right circumstances. Different cultivars have varying degrees of cold-tolerance. (Mulch or take cuttings to over-winter in borderline zones.)
YOU'RE NOT GETTING OLDER, YOU'RE GETTING MORE INTENSE
One of the more interesting features of this flowering plant is that like many others, the color of the individual florets goes through distinct phases as they age. Blooms that almost always start out as some sort of cream to yellow color darken to gold, orange or purple. It is the resulting multi-colored effect on a single flower—really a group of tiny florets—which has kept Lantana breeders so busy over the last several hundred years.
Butterflies are bonkers for Lantana, and they go straight for the 10-15% of the tiny, colorful florets which are yellow and contain the most nectar, reported Natalie Angier in 1991. The older, brighter, more intensely-colored florets (which may be gold, orange, peach, scarlet, or purple, and seen from farther away) act as a billboard for any nectar-seekers who might be fluttering by. Lantana have long been appreciated for their crazy color combinations—yes, purple, orange and rosy pink do go together.
Lantana have been bred to be shorter, taller, more compact, more expansive, more upright and bushy, or more prostrate and trailing. Sultrier reds, sunnier yellows, zestier oranges, and deeper purples, or even lavenders that can be called "blue," and don't forget that the maturing florets are changing color all the time!
[Dave's Garden's own Melody Rose says that she has noticed butterflies in her garden seem to prefer certain older species Lantana to newer patented cultivars, in a completely non-scientific observation.]
THIS BEAUTY IS A BEAST!
The hairy or prickly stems and leaves can be irritating. Ask DG Writer Jean-Jacques Segalen, who writes from Reunion Island, "if I could show you my fore-arms you'd see they are still covered with scratches and marks from last week's clearing on my land." The sap of the pungent Lantana foliage is irritating to some people—like my husband, who says poison ivy is worse, a little worse.
Opinions divide; is the fragrance herbal or horrible? Some people describe it as peppery and lemony-delicious, or smelling like the foliage of a tomato plant, which for me is a pleasant smell, but people in places like Thailand, China or India have nicknamed it things like "fart-flower," "chicken droppings plant" or "stink plant." Their feelings were probably also affected by the fact that in those areas, Lantana is an invasive visitor. Tomato foliage to me portends delicious fresh tomatoes in the near future. If the smell told me I would be spending three days clearing dead brush, or that my banana crop would be wiped out by Lantana infestations, the smell might not have such pleasant conotations.
Reports are that, like standard invasive species, Lantana has no natural predators in tropical ecosystems to which it has been introduced and can out-compete native species for limited resources: access to sun, soil, water and nutrients. Lantana can survive with little water and in high heat. It will grow nearly anywhere except standing water. Where water is plentiful or soil is fertile, it may just grow TOO well. Lantana's dead foliage has been shown to contribute to more frequent fires—and it will grow back faster than the native flora it was shading. In these situations, Lantana is TOO competitive. It's a bully, and it doesn't play well with others.
Reports in the literature, including Dave's Garden, indicate that Lantana plants, particularly unripe berries, are extremely toxic to children, livestock and pets. Please, don't allow your children or animals to graze on or eat this plant. It may not be appetizing to all animals and certainly doesn't seem toxic to birds, as they are the vector for its spread across continents. Still, when in doubt, pick the berries yourself and dispose of responsibly or simply deadhead the flowers before they get a chance to form berries. Some gardeners find the ripening berries attractive, but if there is any chance a pet or a child could be exposed, please do the responsible thing.
L. camara, Joaquim Alves Gaspar, courtesy GNU Free License
L. 'Athens Rose', Melody
About Carrie Lamont
Carrie clicks on EVERY link. She has two beautiful daughters, and has been married for twelve delightful years. Her husband works for an airline, facilitating Carrie's frequent need to travel. She has a masters degree in Music, and hums to herself as she gazes out wistfully at her full-sun containers from her air-conditioned interior. Carrie just moved from Massachusetts to Texas and is still recovering.