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.
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.
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.
- Annuals give gardens a welcome splash of color (seattletimes.nwsource.com)