Thursday, July 9, 2009

Lantana: Flitting Among The Flowers

Lantanas get going when the weather is hot and kids are chasing barefoot, bustin' through the shrubbery. My earliest childhood memories of Lantana are of bright colors, the spicy minty fragrance of the foliage, throwing the little berries at my brother, butterflies flitting among the flowers, and tiny sweaty tingles on my arms and legs.

Lantanas are tropical woody shrubs native to Africa and the Americas, deciduous in cooler regions but evergreen in the warmest. Most are cold-hardy only in USDA climate zones 9 through 11. Some are cold-hardy into zones 7 or 8. In zones 7 and 8, the tops are killed by winter, but the roots usually survive to re-grow the following summer. Lantanas are grown as annuals in northern climates.

Lantana camara, Lantana montevidensis, and their hybrids produce loads of small flowers of multi-colors in bright clusters called umbels throughout the summer. The flowers, of course, attract the butterflies. Lantanas may grow from 12" to 48" high, and 24" to 48" wide, or more. They like warm weather and well-drained soil in sunny places, and are quite drought tolerant. Lantanas need very little tending, which is another reason why they are so popular in hot climate zones. After all, who wants to get out in this heat? They do so well that in some parts of the tropical world they have made pests of themselves. But don't worry; planting them in your yard shouldn't cause problems.

As already mentioned, Lantanas flower prolifically, which is the main reason they are grown. The flowers may bear clusters of a single color or many colors together. And they attract butterflies: alfalfa butterflies, buckeyes, pearl crescents, skippers, swallowtails and zebra heliconians among them.

Taller growing varieties serve well in perennial gardens and shrub borders. The low, spreading ones are superb as colorful ground cover plants, even providing erosion control on slopes. They also do well in containers, planters and patio gardens.

For gardeners who are bothered by browsers, Lantana are deer resistant. Apparently they are turned off by the fragrance, the tiny hairs that cover stems and leaves, or toxic properties of leaf and berry. The fragrance is pleasant, but sensitive gardeners may wear gloves and long sleeves when working around them due to the roughness hairs. Gardeners with small children should prevent them from munching the fruit.

To plant Lantanas, choose a site in full sun with good drainage. Eliminate weeds, if they exist. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 12" deep. Composted manure may be incorporated into the soil, but it may not be necessary. Lantanas that are fed heavily will produce lush stem and foliage at the expense of flowers. For that reason, fertilizer should be used sparingly. If fertilized at all, use something like a 5-10-15 analysis. Avoid allowing synthetic fertilizers to come into contact with the plants. Depending upon the mature size of the plant, space them 24" to 48" apart.

Though Lantanas are drought tolerant, occasional irrigation is beneficial. Not only will it encourage new growth and flowering, over-head irrigation discourages spider mites. Spider mites can cause damage to many types of plants during drought conditions. But they hate water, so a little sprinkling will encourage them to move on.

As the plants age with summer, Lantanas may bloom less. Deadheading (removing flower clusters that have dried or gone to fruit) will encourage new growth. Pruning branches back several inches will do the same.

Frost will kill Lantana foliage. Consistently cold weather will kill the plants. But in marginal climate zones, like USDA zone 8b, the roots may survive the winter, especially if mulched. In that case, the naked or dead branches should be cut back to within a few inches of the soil line. They will usually sprout and grow back in late spring.

As with most plants, certain pests can cause damage. Spider mites, caterpillars, whiteflies, nematodes, aphids and mealy bugs can take their toll, but they are seldom destructive enough to be of major concern. As mentioned before, over-head irrigation discourages mites. The others can be treated using commercially available organic or synthetic pesticides. Diseases such as leaf spot, mildew, rust and wilt are usually infrequent and preventable. Soggy soil causes root rot and death. Insufficient sunlight contributes to leaf diseases.

There are many cultivars of Lantana. The following are worth considering:

  • 'Athens Rose' - Flowers pink, magenta, yellow. Grows to 36" tall and as wide. Cold hardy to USDA climate zone 7.
  • 'Carnival' - Flowers lavender, pink, red and yellow. Grows 24" tall and to 48" wide.
  • 'Chapel Hill' (PPAF) - A new introduction by Plant Introductions, Inc. Flowers yellow. Grows 24" tall and 48" wide. Cold hardy to USDA climate zone 7.
  • 'Confetti' - Flowers pink, purple and yellow. Grows to 36" tall and to 96" wide.
  • 'Dallas Red' - Flowers red and yellow. Grows 36" to 48" tall and as wide.
  • 'Kathleen' - Flowers pink and yellow. Grows 24" tall and up to 72" wide.
  • 'Miss Huff' - Flowers orange, pink and yellow. Grows to 60" tall and up to 120" wide. A 2003 Georgia Gold Medal Winner.
  • 'Mozelle' - Flowers pink, red and yellow. Grows to 24" tall and as wide. Does not require deadheading. Cold hardy to USDA climate zone 7.
  • 'New Gold' - Flowers yellow. Grows to 36" tall and to 48" wide. A 1995 Georgia Gold Medal Winner.
  • 'Radiation' - Flowers orange and red. Grows to 60" tall and as wide.
  • 'Silver Mound' - Flowers white. Grows 24" tall and 30" wide. Cold hardy to USDA climate zone 7.
  • 'Trailing Purple' - Flowers lilac pink to purple. Grows to 24" tall and 48" wide. Cold hardy to USDA climate zone 9.

If you are choosing Lantana primarily to attract butterflies, you may be interested in this paper from Auburn University, Butterfly Feeding Preferences among Cultivars of Lantana camara in the Landscape, a Commonly Recommended Nectar Source by L.L. Bruner, D.J. Eakes, G.J. Keever, J.W. Baier, C.Stuart-Whitman, P.R. Knight, and J.E. Altland.  The researchers tested a selection of cultivars and identified some most attractive to the little creatures. 'New Gold', and 'Radiation' were among the best.

Gardeners, especially those in the south, who wish to bring butterflies up-close should include Lantanas in their landscapes. They are colorful, sun and heat loving, drought tolerant, deer resistant, and require little care.

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