Big color, little water, lots of butterflies. How does that sound? That's the story of lantana in a nutshell. But I'm famous for verbosely pontificating on the attributes of plants whenever I have an audience, so let's dig deeper.
Lantana is a genus of flowering perennial plants consisting of around 150 species that are native to the tropical Americas and West Africa (another good botanical case for continental drift theories).
Most of the plants sold locally as lantana are either Lantana camara, Lantana montevidensis or hybrids of the two.
Lantana montevidensis, named because it is native to the hills surrounding Uruguay capital city of Montevideo, has a low growing, trailing or even vining habit that has earned its common name "Trailing Lantana".
Lantana camara, on the other hand, tends to grow more upright.
The dome-shaped flower heads of both species consist of many individual tubular-shaped flowers with four petals each. A broad spectrum of hues and colors is represented in lantana, from white to pink to purple to orange to red. They often exhibit multi-colors within the same flower head, as the younger center flowers of the dome start out lighter and then richen as they mature.
The most common species in cultivation are Lantana camara cultivars such as the oh-so-hot orange and red "Radiation," the tri-colored "Confetti" (yellow, pink and purple), and the super bright yellow "New Gold."
The lower-growing, purple-flowering Lantana montevidensis has its own set of cultivars as well, including "White Lightnin" with brilliant white flowers, and the bright yellow spiller known simply as "Trailing Yellow."
Lantana foliage has a distinct odor colorfully described as landing somewhere on the smell spectrum between fermenting citrus and gasoline. Its uses in garden design run the gamut from a fantastic colorful addition to a perennial border, serving as an eye catching climbing vine, or being employed en masse to cover hot, sunny, erosion-prone slopes.
During its evolution, lantana developed several drought-survival strategies, giving it the ability to endure dry times.
It has an extensive root system that can efficiently capture whatever moisture may be near it. It also creates its own insulating mulch layer via leaf drop. And finally, when times get really tough, it has the ability to go semi-dormant, losing its leaves and delaying flowering until wetter days return.
Lantana is considered an invasive exotic in many subtropical ecosystems from Hawaii and Australia to the Southeast United States.
But here in California, our lack of summer rain and relative low humidity prevents lantana and many other introduced ornamentals from running beyond the bounds of our gardens. So use it liberally here guilt free, but refrain from planting it at your Hawaiian beach house.
My favorite design trick with lantana is hiding something less than pretty with it. At my last garden in Martinez, I was lucky enough to inherit the neighborhood P.G. & E. in-ground transformer box parked right at the main entry walk to my front door.
In my never-ending pursuit of landscape beautification, I planted Purple Trailing Lantana on the perimeter of the box and let it spread across it completely, covering the box with its profusion of purple ball-like blooms. Problem solved.
Every so often, P.G. & E. crew members would need to access the box and would simply cut the plants back to the edges, but within a few months, my faithful lantana would cover the box, and beauty would prevail again.
It can also work wonders as a climbing vine, camouflaging such unsightly vertical elements as a chain-link fence or any other supporting structure in need of greening.
Lantana is commonly available just about anywhere plants are sold, but why pay good money for something you can get for free?
Simply find a parent plant with the flower color you like and cut off a stem that's at least a quarter inch thick. Then lop off the top of the cutting so it's 4 to 8 inches long. Remove all flowers and large leaves, allowing some of the smaller leaves to remain.
Stick your cutting into high quality potting soil, sand, perlite, vermiculite or any combination thereof, place in the shade where the sprinklers will hit it. Keep it constantly moist, but not saturated. Return in a couple of weeks and you will likely have a new plant ready for planting into the garden.
Take multiple cuttings, as there is always an attrition percentage.
Summer is best for propagating subtropical plants like lantana _ the more heat, the faster the rooting. This formula can be successfully employed for just about all woody plants (just don't tell your local nurseryman that it was I who taught you how to make free plants).
And the biggest payoff for this plant? Butterflies, butterflies, butterflies.
From my experience, I don't know of a plant that consistently attracts more butterflies than lantana. The seeds that follow the bloom will be much-welcomed food for local birds. And as a final bonus, beautiful black bumblebees also find the lantana party hard to pass by.
And finally, here's a little trick for all of you fellas out there lookin' for a lady. Decorating your nest with lantana blooms has worked wonders in the lady attracting department for several tropical weaverbirds. Apparently, a nest well-decorated with the colorful blooms is just too much for the females to resist. What a way to bust a move.
To this day, I strongly believe that my abundance of lantana plants adorning my garden was an inadvertent, but key factor in attracting my hottie wife.
(c) 2009, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).
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