Lantana camara – red sage, yellow sage

I’ve seen this flower in bloom for some time now, but only after the arrival of my now favorite field guide, [see references at the end of this post] did I even try to identify it.

It is Lantana camara, a plant known to and named by Linneaus himself. He gave it the genus name Lantana, which is an ancient Latin name for a Verbena species (L. camara is in the Verbena family). The species name camara is a South American common name for the plant, so Linneaus must also have known where the plant came from.

An English common name for this plant is red sage, yellow sage. The common sage plant (Salvia officinalis) is a member of a different, but closely related family, the Lamiaceae.

Two questions about this plant: 1) why are there both yellow and red flowers in the flowerhead, and 2) is it a weed or a wildflower?


First, more description:

The flowerheads are dome-shaped, made up of many individual flowers, which are tubular and have 4 petals. The buds are in the center of the flowerhead, the young open flowers are yellow, and the old flowers are red. I’ll come back to these colors later.

The plant is a shrub with hairy square stems that may or may not have thorns. This one does:

The leaves are toothed and opposite, a lighter green color below.

What does this plant smell like? My field guide describes the odor as pungent, but I’ve seen many, many descriptions of the aroma. I first saw the smell described on the web as cat pee. I didn’t think it smelled like that, so I began looking for other descriptions. At one site I found different individuals describing the odor as, respectively, “citrus-sage, spicy, [an objectionable] mixture of mint and camphor with a touch of onion, horrible, chicken droppings, none.”

This is an amazing list – it makes me wonder whether the soil where it grows doesn’t have something to do with the smell. Personally, I found the smell fairly strong but not unpleasant, falling somewhere between the citrus-sage description and spicy. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden recommends including L. camara in a “fragrance garden!”

Now, is it a wildflower or a weed? The eternal question. Here in Central (and northern South) America, where L. camara is native, it can be enjoyed for its own sake. It has been cultivated for more than 300 years so obviously has an esthetic appeal. But L. camara is listed in the Global Invasive Species Database because it can be invasive outside Central and northern South American. In Australia, it is listed as a “Weed of National Significance.”

The Global Invasive Species Database does list many uses for L. camara including as a herbal medicine (research in India shows that leaf extracts have antimicrobial, fungicidal, insecticidal, and nematicidal activity.) The shrubs benefit bird species and the flower is a “…major nectar source for many species of butterflies and moths.”

L. camara has been described as an excellent hummingbird shrub that seems even more attractive to butterflies. Which brings me back to the red and yellow colors. My field guide says that the “…old, deep-orange flowers, which persist for some time, provide landing surfaces for butterflies, deter nectar-robbing Trigona bees from accessing the bases of the newer, inner flowers…” This sentence is tantalizing. Nectar-robbing bees?

Further searching on the web turned up an article called “Nectar Robbing and Pollination of Lantana camara (Verbenaceae)” [see references at the end of this post]. It turns out that 1) several flowers in the inflorescence open each day, usually about dawn, 2) newly opened flowers are yellow and start to change color after about 9 hours and the color continues to deepen as the flowers age, 3) yellow flowers contain pollen and nectar but by the time they are red-orange, they have “negligible pollen and no nectar,” and 4) the stingless bee Trigona fulviventris bites holes in the bases of the stamens of L. camara and robs nectar without performing pollination.

The authors learned that with orange and reddish-orange flowers present, the yellow flowers are not robbed as often as they are in the absence of those flowers. Butterflies are the pollinators of L. camara, and the authors suggest that the flower has evolved to feed both its robber and its pollinators.

I haven’t found any studies yet about hummingbirds and L. camara. Here in Panama, birds (flycatchers, honey-creepers, and tanagers) have been seen eating the berries (this according to my field guide), but no word on hummingbirds and nectar or pollination. Many sites that sell garden plants list L. camara as a plant that attracts hummingbirds, but I notice that the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden has not checked the “attracts hummingbirds” box but has checked the “attracts butterflies” box.

Now, at least, I know to keep a close watch on this attractive wildflower/weed. I’ve seen a moth on it, but no bees, butterflies, or hummingbirds. Time to go take a deeper look.

———————-

References:

Favorite field guide: Zuchowski, Willow. 2005. A Guide to Tropical Plants of Costa Rica. Zona Tropical, Miami, 529 pp.

Article in Biotropica: Barrows, E.M. 1976. Nectar Robbing and Pollination of Lantana camara (Verbenaceae). Biotropica, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 132-135. doi:10.2307/2989633.

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20 Responses to Lantana camara – red sage, yellow sage

  1. Andee says:

    Hi, Lantana is one of my favorite plants. i grew it as an annual in Zone 5, and when i was a kid in L.A. we had a whole hillside of it. You know, I think that there are other colors besides the red/orange/yellow version. Like deep pink, and deep yellow, and plan coral red. Solids instead of the every changing red/orange/yellow version. I don’t know if the names are different. They must be, I suppose.

    I was really excited to see them in the in the viveros here in Mexico. And it grows kind of wild around here, but I think they are escaped garden plants because of the locations. It seems as though if you don’t prune them they get really ugly and scraggly.

    There was a park in Beverly Hills when I was a kid that had a long, long shrub fence of Lantana. It smelled ugly but really looked nice. I think it bloomed most of the year there. It’s hard to remember. Tough little plant. The hummingbirds really go after it around here.

  2. panamacoffee says:

    Andee,

    My field guide to Costa Rican plants does mention other species of Lantana with different colors. It also mentions cultivars of L. camara of different colors.

    What do you think it smells like? I get no sense of smell at all just standing by a bush, but when I crush a leaf I get the pungent hard-to-describe smell.

    It’s barely blooming at all here in the height of the rainy season although presumably it blooms year round in the tropics. This morning I went out to the bush where I took that picture and there were some berries, one small flowerhead (all red), and many, many wilted away flowers.

    I’m also interested that you see hummingbirds go after it there in Mexico. That’s the first real observation I’ve heard of it. Neat! I’ve heard that hummingbirds prefer red, and I now know that the red flowers of Lantana do not have nectar. But I’ve watched hummingbirds at both our red shrimp plant and our yellow shrimp plant, and they actually seem to prefer the yellow. The yellow flowers of Lantana are, of course, the nectar-filled ones.

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  4. miconia says:

    Anita,

    Interesting question. I don’t know whether Lantana are toxic to birds or not. I’ve read that all parts of the plant, including the berries, can be toxic, but that not all species are toxic. I have not been able to find any information on the internet (although I’ve hardly plumbed all the information out there) about toxicity to birds in particular. Most of the discussion is about toxicity to mammals.

    A couple of sites that discuss toxicity are: from the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Australia, where Lantana camara has become a pest)
    and the Mount Morgan site, also from Australia, which lists relative toxicity of different species. [Note: Unfortunately, the Mount Morgan site has disappeared.]

    If you find any information about toxicity to birds, I’d love to hear about it.

    Thanks.

  5. AnitaInCanada says:

    Hi,

    I just bought my first Lantana plant this summer…It grows well and is quite beautiful. However, I have noticed that since planting it, we have fewer birds visiting our backyard. Is it possible that the Lantana is harmful to the birds? I kow it is a toxic plant and quite harmful to catttle and livestock and children if they were to eat the berries, but could it also be toxic to birds?

    Regards,

    Anita

  6. cezzarum says:

    Hi Everyone …
    Lantana Camara is an exotic shrubs here . I have 5 different speiceies my own garden . They are great . They are not need anything except sun .Thanks to God and nature was created Lantana Camara . Here is ?stanbul ?n Turkey…

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  8. sasha says:

    hey thanks,
    i just wanted to say thanks for all of this awsome research of lantana camara.
    it really helped my alot on my project. too bad these beautiful plants are invasive though. well anyways thanks again

  9. mary says:

    Hi Sasha,

    Just remember that Lantana is not invasive everywhere. It is a native species here in Central America and therefore is not invasive here – it’s only invasive in some areas where it has been introduced.

    Good luck with the rest of your project!

    Mary

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  11. luis says:

    what is the red and yellow sage goodfor as medicine plant

  12. mary says:

    Hello Luis,

    There is some conflicting information on the medicinal value of Lantana. A pretty good overview is at Gardens Ablaze. It certainly should be viewed with caution because of its toxic properties.

    Mary

  13. peachie says:

    hello,
    i read all the informations about lantana camara . actually, our thesis is all about lantana camara. i would like to ask if what toxin does the unripe berries of lantana camara that causes poison to animals like sheep, cattle and etc.

  14. mary says:

    Hello peachie,

    I’m afraid I can’t answer your question. I’d suggest an internet search for Lantana toxin. Good luck!

    Mary

  15. Tex says:

    Lantana grows wild in the most arid parts of west Texas.
    I know it likes hot weather and is drought resistant.
    There is a white variety that is delicate and low-growing in the humid subtropical climate of the southern US. It is useful where alyssum or baby’s breath can’t take the heat. In the same environment, the more common bi-colored variety can be trained into a low hedge though it is deciduous. A pale lemon-yellow color has been available for over thirty years, and this year we noticed new hot-pink and fuschia colored versions on offer.

  16. mary says:

    Thanks, Tex. I can see how Lantana would be popular as a cultivated plant. Fun to hear about the new (and old) varieties in west Texas.

  17. kflay says:

    do you think that Lantana camara has any great effect on another plants?

  18. mary says:

    Hello kflay,

    I don’t know whether or how Lantana camara might affect other plants. I’ve never grown it as a garden plant. I see it in the wild here and it is always surrounded by other plants, but that only means that the plants around it are not affected by it. I suppose it is possible that there may be some plants so affected. It would be interesting to do an internet search for that, or better still, grow some in your garden and experiment!

    Thanks for your question.

    Mary

  19. AURORA RUIZO-AGRA says:

    Thank you for sharing about lantana. There are a lot of varieties of this plant in terms of colors now. Here in the Philippines we have fuschia and white, yellow and white. We also have orange, pale yellow, dark bright yellow, and violet in one color. They’re very attractive all year round, they look very good when formed into kind of topiary. My only problem is that they easily get infested with aphids so i would have to trim it down to its lowest branches even when in full bloom yet.

  20. mary says:

    Hello Aurora,

    How nice to hear about your lantanas in the Philippines. The colors sound wonderful. Too bad about the aphids, though.

    Mary

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