Saturday 18 November 2017

Vivid reminder of holidays in the sun

Lantana is beautiful inside or outside Picture: Anna Yu
Lantana is beautiful inside or outside Picture: Anna Yu

Gerry Daly

Lantana is one of those plants that is dear to those who know it, but many more people have seen it as it is widely grown as a small decorative shrub in warm countries, popular as holiday destinations.

There is a fair chance that you have walked past this bush, never noticing it, or perhaps admiring it without knowing its name.

In such countries, it is often planted in quite large batches as a colourful ground cover flowering year round if the weather is warm enough. It is a small shrub to about one metre or so but usually it is cut down to be more ground-hugging, or the old plants removed and vigorous fresh ones planted each year.

The little bush has coarse, nettle-shaped leaves, rough to the touch, and smelling strongly of nettles, although it is part of the verbena family. These dark-green leaves make a fine backdrop for the very pretty flowers, which consist of tight rounded clusters of tiny trumpet-shaped florets.

The clusters are almost always two-tone, the youngest rings of florets at the centre opening yellow or orange and fading to red, lilac or purple-pink as they age.

There are different named kinds but the original has yellow and red. There is also a species that has only pale purple flowers and it is not as decorative, but creates dense ground cover in warm countries.

The colours are very vivid as befits a native of tropical South America. Such vivid colours have evolved to attract humming-birds as pollinators. Butterflies stop for a drink of nectar, using their long tongues too. Like many tropical plants, it flowers continuously there.

In this country, lantana is a conservatory plant, taken outdoors for the summer months if possible, but not during the times when frost might occur. It thrives outdoors in the warm air and full sunshine in summer and does very well in the warmth of a greenhouse too, where it can spend the summer if preferred.

This time of year is a challenge. It is an evergreen bush normally but can lose some or all of its leaves in winter as a survival tactic.

The stems of older plants are quite woody and not so easily killed. In a greenhouse, it needs frost protection heating and it is better kept indoors in a bright porch or window sill.

It is such a good plant in summer that it deserves good treatment in winter.

In warm countries around the world, planted in gardens initially, it has escaped into the countryside and has proven to be a very invasive species, out-competing plants native to those regions. This problem does not arise here because it has no chance of surviving winter frosts outdoors.

Indeed, it can have its roots rotted by too much water, and leaving it stand in a saucer of water for more than a few hours can be the start of rotting.

Keep it slightly dry at the root during the dull months, allowing the compost to dry on the surface between waterings. When it starts to make new growth in spring begin feeding and liquid feed all summer every week to get more flowers. Cuttings taken in summer root easily.

Sunday Independent

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