Every year, the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting the pleasures of home gardening, selects one annual, one perennial, one edible plant, one shrub and one bulb to celebrate. It’s a great way to discover a new plant or to learn a bit more about a plant you may already be growing.
Let’s look at the annual chosen for 2020, the lantana.
Year of the Lantana
The lantana has a rich history of being utilized in the garden for long-lasting, colorful blooms, superior heat tolerance and the ability to attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Featuring clusters of bright colors, solid as well as multi-color, lantana can be used in containers, landscaping and hanging baskets.
In the 18th century, lantana was a popular greenhouse plant in Europe and breeding efforts were extensive, resulting in hundreds of available selections.
There are 150 species of lantana in the verbena family (Verbenaceae) and the most commonly used ornamental selection is Lantana camara. Hardy to USDA zone 8, this plant can be a perennial (tender perennial in zone 7) or even a small to medium shrub in frost-free locations. It is most commonly used as an annual in colder areas.
The lantana gets its name from its clusters of dark blue berries that closely resemble those of Viburnum lantana (wayfaring tree).
Lantana is a must-have for creating a pollinator haven. These plants are really attractive to butterflies, bees and hummingbirds (the latter, in the New World only) on so many levels: sweet nectar for food, attractive scent, bright color, and the overall flower form (it’s a literal landing pad!).
These flat-topped “landing pad” flowers consist of clusters of tubular blooms that together make a dome—botanically, an umbel—, something butterflies especially like to land on.
Lantana flowers come in single or multiple colors. Multiple colored lantana flowers change color as they mature. The newest flowers, opening in the center of the umbel, are one color, but that changes as they mature and move to the outer edges of the cluster. This maturation of the flowers within the umbel can lead to two or even three-toned flowers.
The flowers come primarily in shades of red, orange, yellow, white, pink, purple or lavender and often have a slight, spicy flower fragrance.
What About the Smell?
Butterflies are attracted by the mild scent of lantana flowers and most people enjoy their perfume, describing it variously as being like citrus-sage or passion fruit. But it’s not very noticeable.
The foliage is another story. Not that it will bother you if you keep your distance, but it you rub the leaves, you’ll discover they have an odor, sometimes a very strong one. It can be citrusy or camphorlike, attractive or disagreeable, and each plant has its own scent. If you’re someone given to touching your plants often, try rubbing a leaf of the chosen variety before you buy it and sniffing your fingers, just to be sure its scent suits you.
Likewise, the angular stems of some varieties have spines that can be small and harmless or more developed and quite nasty, but this trait is largely limited to wild plants and is rarely found in cultivated varieties.
Ready for the Heat and Drought!
Want a flower that keeps on flowering throughout the summer in scorching heat and dry conditions? If so, the lantana is the perfect plant to grow in your garden and containers!
These plants love the heat and like to be kept on the drier side. They do best in full sun and well-drained soil and hate to be overwatered.
Breeders have recently introduced sterile, or near sterile, lantanas, which means the plant never sets seed, so they continue to bloom and bloom and bloom through the entire season! Therefore, when that heat kicks up, these sterile varieties won’t set seed or cycle out of flower. (Setting seed means the end of flowering on most plants.)
New sterile varieties to look for include ‘Gold Mound’, Hot Blooded™, ‘New Gold’, ‘Alba’, the Patriot™ Series, the Sunburst™ Series, and the Bloomify™ Series.
Do note that even sterile lantanas produce nectar and even pollen, so they remain highly attractive to pollinators.
Compact or Trailing
Lantanas fall roughly into two forms: compact or trailing. Compact, mounding plants are readily available and perfect for small spaces and containers. Trailing forms, which can spread up to 90 cm (3 feet), are ideal to economically fill in larger areas with an impressive display of color. When purchasing your lantana, always consider the final plant size as some can get quite large.
If you’re patient, you can even prune upright lantanas into a treelike shape. This will take a year or two. Here’s how to do it.
Home Gardening Tips
- Continuous blooms and easy care make lantana perfect for those new to gardening.
- Lantanas grow best with at least 8 hours of full sun and in a variety of well-drained soils (they do tolerate salt). Avoid overwatering or placing them in poorly drained locations.
- In the spring, home gardeners will find lantana plants at their local garden retailers and through some plant catalog companies.
- In colder climates, plant after the threat of frost has passed and ideally after the soil has warmed.
- Very few diseases are found. Powdery mildew may become an occasional issue, particularly during cool, wet summers and in situations where proper air circulation isn’t available. Root rot and sooty mold will occasionally become factors in overly damp situations as well.
- Relatively insect-free, but do watch out for whiteflies.
- Overfertilization may result in more stem and foliage growth at the expense of flower production.
- Deadhead (removing spent blooms) regularly to keep the plant tidy.
- If your plant becomes overgrown, prune it back severely to maintain a more compact form.
- Deer and rabbits tend to avoid lantana, finding the odor of the leaves disagreeable.
Warmer climates benefit from sterile varieties
Due to the easy spread of seeds by birds, non-native lantanas have become weeds in some subtropical and tropical climates such as the US states Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Hawaii and as well as in Australia, South Asia and Southern Africa.
The sterile lantanas now available allow gardeners in warmer climates enjoy the beauty of lantanas without the worry.
There is, of course, no risk of even fertile lantanas becoming invasive in climates with cold winters.
But Aren’t Lantanas Poisonous?
Yes, they are, but mostly to herbivores, notably cattle. A California study concluded they are only very slightly toxic to humans and can be considered safe around toddlers. If a child accidentally chews a bit of lantana and has mild or no symptoms, there is no need to see a doctor or get treatment. Just wipe the kid’s mouth clean and keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t get worse.
As for their toxicity to cats and dogs, the lantana is generally fairly innocuous, but largely because it is only slightly poisonous and neither animal is likely to eat important quantities of the plant. The main danger is to herbivorous pets which could consume massive quantities, such as rabbits and guinea pigs. Keep such pets, as well as farm animals (cattle, sheep, goats, horses, etc.), away from lantana.
One widely-circulated theory is that the shiny blue-black mature berries, which birds eat with impunity, are safe for humans, while the immature green berries (and the leaves) would be toxic. Indeed, ripe lantana berries are currently eaten in many parts of the world and feature on lists of edible plants in several countries. Still, toxicologists remain hesitant about this use since it has not been thoroughly studied. It’s probably wisest to leave the mature berries to the birds … if indeed your plants produce any, remembering, of course, that sterile varieties won’t.
In warmer climates (USDA zones 8 and above), overwintering lantana requires no special care. And in areas where they are considered borderline, covering the plant with a thick layer of mulch is all you need. Any frost damage can then be pruned off come spring and the plant will grow back from the base.
In cold winter areas, most gardeners consider lantanas to be annuals and let the frost kill them. However, you can bring a plant or two indoors for the winter and then use it as a stock plant for cuttings in the spring. Bring in either the plant or cuttings. Thoroughly treat the foliage beforehand to avoid bringing in pests. Root the cuttings by applying a bit of rooting hormone to the cut end and inserting it into moist potting soil. Cover with a clear plastic dome or bag until the plants are rooted.
Lantanas need strong light indoors and will do best in front of a sunny window or under lights. Normal room temperatures are fine. They’ll likely even bloom indoors, though probably not as heavily as they would outside in the summer.
Varieties to Choose From:
Some of the most popular and available lantana series are listed below. There are some exciting variegated foliage selections to consider as well, such as Cosmic Firestorm™ (‘Manuel Red’) and Lemon Swirl® (‘Samantha’).
Popular Lantana Series
- Bandana®—superior, compact and mounded forms
- Bandito™—smaller but intensely color flowers
- Bandolero—big bold plants good for northern regions
- Bloomify™—first “sterile certified” series
- Havana™—naturally compact series, minimal seeding
- Landmark™—thrives in heat, humidity and drought, solid performer
- Little Lucky™—dense and compact habit, heavy flowering
- Lucky®—early flowering, more compact
- Luscious®—excellent in baskets and mixed containers
Lantanas: stunning plants that many gardeners don’t know very well. Why not try them yourself in this, the Year of the Lantana?
Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.