This horticultural wonder of the Valley world is Lantana Camara. Although it’s a plant that some people avoid because of its strong musky odor, disdained by others as a quickly growing amorphous woody beast, and maligned for being too common, lantana remains a glorious plant for out-of-the way, non-sprinklered areas. It may require occasional deep soaking, so don’t neglect it completely.
Lantana montevidensis, a relative, is a species familiar to students of freeway landscaping. It trails down embankments, showing off scads of violet flowers. On some of these slopes, it is interplanted with Algerian ivy, that floppy-leafed, dark green ground cover whose popularity seems to diminish with each passing day.
There are many hybrids between L. Camara and L. montevidensis, from a creeping white-flowered type to shrubbier versions whose blooms range from yellow to orange and magenta. “Confetti” combines yellow, pink and purple on a single flower.
By the way, I can’t figure out how the railroad track lantana gets its water, unless some gardening angels are at work. Or maybe it’s just one of those special, mysterious Los Angeles microclimates where plants grow without any water except for winter rain. Then again, lantana may actually be able to go an entire summer without irrigation, which would explain its reduced flowering in irrigated gardens. Annual pruning is advised to keep woodiness at a minimum. Be careful though, lest you overdo it and kill the plant.
In Hawaii, Lantana Camara is a weed. The birds over there peck away at the black and juicy lantana fruits, swallow and then excrete their seeds. As a result, lantana seedlings come up all over the islands, and are as much of a nuisance over there, I understand, as Washington palms, Shamel ashes and spiderworts can be in our own city. Most lantanas sold in nurseries are sterile hybrids that do not produce viable seeds.
One person’s wanton weed is another person’s plant with a purpose, or at least a subject worthy of observation and contemplation. With common plants, you have two alternatives: either throw up your hands, walk away and moan to yourself “not this again,” or take another look and see if there isn’t something you may have missed before. Learning to appreciate the ordinary, after all, is the only way to expunge boredom and add meaning to life.
At Chandler Boulevard and Coldwater Canyon Avenue, also along the railroad tracks, another carefree plant is growing, only this one has lilac flowers and grows like a mat. It is either Verbena bipinnatifida or Verbena tenuisecta; because of their tendency toward hybridization, no one will ever know with confidence, I fear, the names of certain verbenas or, for that matter, certain lantanas, both of which come from the same botanical family.
At any rate, the common lilac verbena self-sows in Los Angeles gardens like no other ground cover. Other perennial verbena ground covers, which come in red, pink, white and purple, do not self-sow, and live, under the best of circumstances, for about three years. Annual verbena is a colorful bedding plant that looks wonderful in the nursery in 4-inch pots but is a real challenge to grow in the garden. It is highly sensitive to leaf fungus, and almost invariably develops powdery mildew. In fact, all verbenas should be kept in full sun to guard against fungus diseases.
Verbena rigida and Verbena bonariensis, upright perennials with lilac or purple flowers borne on tall spikes, also deserve recognition. They have a light, airy, old-fashioned look.
Verbena is a plant that recently has been making horticultural news. A new low-growing verbena cultivar, developed in Japan, has stiff shoots studded with purple-red flowers. It has arrived in California and is slowly starting to appear in nurseries. It is suitable as a ground cover, and is highly recommended for container growing and hanging baskets.
Verbena and lantana belong to the Verbenaceae or vervain family. According to Mrs. M. Grieve, in “A Modern Herbal,” verbena, in ancient times, was “worn around the neck as a charm against headaches”; it also was thought to possess “aphrodisiac qualities.” Even in olden times, it appears, there was a unique relationship between headache and desire.
Tip of the week: A plant that every lemon-scented leaf lover should grow is lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla). Unlike its water-thrifty cousins, this verbena needs a good weekly soaking and may even benefit from a half-sun, half-shade exposure.