I’ve seen scores of great new flowering plants come along during a career in Texas horticulture, and I’ve been proud to embrace every one of them. But it’s hard to turn your back on an old friend that was there from the beginning. Lantanas are, after all, native to the great state of Texas and they’ve earned their stripes in our heat and our droughts. They grow naturally down in the Hill Country, where jackrabbits and rattlesnakes are among their closest friends.
Early horticulturists saw merit in the orange/red blooms of the native lantana and brought it into some of Texas’ earliest gardens. The Lady Bird Johnson National Wildflower Center lists it as Lantana urticoides, but you’ll still see it under the species name of L. horrida. I always thought that was a rather intimidating name.
There are many other species of lantanas, and breeders and growers have selected a rich assortment of hybrids and colors to bring into the market. Go into any garden center in Texas right now and you’ll see what I mean.
Upright varieties grow to be 2 to 3 feet tall and wide. Names like Confetti (yellow, orange and pink), Caprice (pink and white), Tangerine (orange), Lemon Swirl (yellow with variegated foliage), and Radiation (orange-red and yellow) are common, among many other much newer hybrids offered by specific growers.
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Some lantanas are trailing. The old-fashioned Gold Mound and Silver Mound (actually white) are two of my favorites, but you’ll rarely find them in nurseries anymore. Both grow to 8 to 12 inches tall, and their leaves are much smaller and finer-textured. A somewhat newer triploid (sterile, therefore seedless) hybrid called New Gold is very similar to Gold Mound, but it grows slightly taller and remains in full bloom more consistently since it’s not taking time to produce fruit.
Shortest of all of them are trailing lavender lantana and its white counterpart called White Lightning. Both grow to 6 to 8 inches tall, spreading to 4 or 5 feet per year. They are somewhat less winter-hardy than the other lantanas, but they’re stunning garden additions.
Lantanas love sun. In fact, they need full sun to grow to best advantage. While they’re drought-tolerant, they grow and bloom best if they’re kept growing actively by regular irrigation and fertilization with a high-nitrogen plant food. That’s especially critical if you’re growing lantanas in pots. They grow rapidly enough that they dry out very quickly, especially if you’ve chosen a porous, fast-draining potting soil.
About the only pest problem you’re likely to encounter with your lantanas will be lace bugs. Lace bugs are significant enough that you really don’t want to ignore them. They’ll suck the chlorophyll right out of the leaves and you’ll be left with pale, lifeless-looking plants coated in sticky honeydew excretions. When you see first signs of tan mottling of the lantanas’ leaves, apply a general-purpose insecticide that is labeled for lace bugs.
Lantanas are propagated from short stem cuttings 2 to 3 inches long. Take them from healthy, vigorous shoots in early summer and stick them into pots filled with equal amounts of sphagnum peat moss and horticultural perlite. Soak them thoroughly immediately after you take the cuttings, and cover them loosely with a sheet of dry cleaner’s plastic to conserve moisture. Leave openings so they won’t overheat. It’s best to root the cuttings in bright light but out of direct sunlight. They should develop roots within a couple of weeks, at which time you can dig them up carefully and plant them in 4-inch pots. Protect them from hard freezes their first winter, then plant them into the garden next spring.
Some types of lantanas are winter-hardy in most of North Texas, while many are not. It’s best to consider them as annuals in our area. If they come back from their roots, that will be your bonus for growing them. Do note that they will be among the last of your perennial plants to send up new shoots in the spring.
I have no bona fide research data behind this next observation, but when I’m growing winter-tender perennials like lantanas and Mexican bush salvias in my Metroplex-area garden, I find that they’re more likely to survive and come back if I cut off the frozen tops the first or second day after the first freeze. It seems to stop the dieback from moving down into the plants’ root zones. I cover them with several inches of shredded tree leaves as my overwintering mulch.
One of the best side benefits of growing lantanas in Texas is that they attract all the right kinds of wildlife (excluding the lace bugs). Bees love them, and butterflies and hummingbirds are drawn to them. You’ll enjoy all the fluttering activity they bring to your gardens.
When you tally up the balance sheet, there are a lot of reasons to love lantanas for Texas landscapes. We’ve hit on only a few. It’s a good time to lean on lantanas.