“And how it grows! Nature — so neat and ingenious at devising forms, patterns and routines — seems here to have become bored with one of her creations; to have informed it with life, and then left it to its own devices. The result — as one might expect — is frightful.
“Other plants and weeds, endowed with a master plan providing that the growth of one part shall contribute, in conjunction with that of others, to a final harmony of shape and function, understand exactly what is expected of them, and address themselves without pause or hesitation to the achievement of their task. But a glance is enough to betray the sad fact that one stem of the lantana knows not what the others are doing; each sprouts upwards, downward or sideways at will, guided only by an eager, blundering vitality, a fervent, planless exuberance, a kind of anarchic zeal….
“Does this shrub… consist of a great many stems and no branches, or a great many branches and no stem? A stem — so we understand — is the ascending axis of a plant in contradistinction to its descending axis, or root; and a branch — if we have been properly informed — is that part which grows out of the stem. This definition may enable us to identify those stems which, having emerged from the earth directly above their descending axis, steadily and without further ado concentrate upon the business of ascent, putting forth boughs and branches as they go; but it is no help at all with lantana….
“For although lantana certainly ascends (and to prodigious heights), it can hardly be said to grow upwards. It achieves, rather, what we might at first be tempted to describe as an act of levitation….
“One’s sensations, while crawling into the lantana’s nether layers must markedly resemble those of a psychiatrist groping his way into the twilight of the unconscious, Great Heavens, what a mess!”
“The lantanas are free flowering in winter and summer, but an odor of foliage and flowers that is disagreeable to many persons prevents them from popular use as cut-flowers. They are very useful in window-gardens and the dwarf kinds make good subjects for hanging-baskets. From the window they may be transferred to the open in summer, where they grow profusely.
“The lantana is not particular as to soil, provided the exposure is sunny, and also that the soil is well supplied with moisture at least until a fair growth has been made. When well established the plants do not seem to mind drought, and continue bright and attractive in the hottest weather. They should not be transplanted out in the open before danger of frost is over. If the old plants are wanted for propagation, cut them back and transfer to pots. In September, and when they start into new growth the soft wood will furnish cuttings that root easily….
“Gardeners train them into fine standards, as prim and shapely as need be.”
“Lantana is generally termed a Weed. We go further, hereabouts, and call it a Pest, to say nothing of less printable names. But in fact it is not altogether useless, and it is not so much wicked as crazy. It preserves, through all its misdemeanours, a kind of feckless innocence which, while often inducing extreme exasperation, still disarms hostility. We have become used to it — as those who work in lunatic asylums become used to mental aberration.
“Other weeds, such as Noogoora burr, Cobblers’ Pegs, Crowsfoot, Groundsel and Stinking Roger, are systematic and purposeful enemies — Napoleons and Hitlers of the vegetable world, shameless aggressors bent upon territorial conquest; but the lantana, poor fool, is not really greedy for lebensraum. Like an amiable, gangling half-wit who, without the slightest intention of incommoding anyone, gets under everyone’s feet, it simply keeps alive, and grows.”
As I’ve featured it here many times before, early this fall I only took a few photos of some of the lantana growing on my property. Click this lantana tag if you’d like to take a look at the previous years’ galleries.
Since the flowers are small — typically about an inch in diameter — lantana is always an excellent subject for macro photography, even moreso perhaps because its stiff stems keep the flowers from swaying too much when it’s windy. It’s not flat — the tiny petals curve backward on a rounded structure about the size of a large marble — so it gives The Photographer a chance to practice achieving balance between depth of field and focus with a macro lens. You can see the difference among the set of images below: those with the sharpest focus on the flowers were taken at f-stops f/16 or f/19; those with a softer overall appearance (especially in the backgrounds) were taken at f/9 or f/11.
I like this variation — it’s officially called Mary Ann Lantana — because it packs so many colors in such small spaces. I mean, really, how many flowers can you think of that exhibit all these distinctly different tones?
Each spring, lantana varieties occupy a lot of space in southeastern garden centers, packed onto long tables in the tiniest plastic pots the stores carry, each pot sporting a single plug with just two or three foot-long stems. That’s how all of mine started, but they spread rapidly, filling up open ground spaces or stuffing a pot with new roots, sometimes shooting a long root through the pot’s drainage hole and deep into the ground. One had a big surprise for The Gardner when — in a frenzy of relocating pots — he grabbed a potted lantana, the lantana held its ground, and The Gardener fell on his ass.
But I’ve dug them up and pulled them out and replanted them many times, and they never seem to mind. Some wild varieties are considered invasive even here in Georgia; those perennial and annual variations available from garden centers are not. The annual varieties — despite being annuals — often return for a few years, and may continue to grow back without blooming but still produce beautiful thick batches of spear-tip-shaped, saturated-green leaves.
The second quotation at the top of this post, from the book Lantana Lane by Australian author Eleanor Dark, is in a book chapter whose full title is…
Some Remarks upon the Nature of Contrast with Special Reference to the Habits and Characteristics of Ananas comosus and Lantana camara and an Examination of their Economic and Psychological Effect upon Homo Sapiens
… which is a humorous mouthful. The contrast examined by the author compares pineapple plants (Ananas comosus) with lantana shrubs, both of which present challenges for Australia’s farmers and ecologists because of their unchecked growth, yet only one of the two — the lantana — meets the definition of “noxious” weed.
Because a weed is just a plant with a bad reputation, pineapple plants are let off the hook since they can at least bolster Australia’s economy (lots of pineapple for pizza, folks!) whereas lantana plants just tangle everybody up until they’re cut down or smothered with deadly chemicals (and are even then only in remission). Having wrestled to untangle and prune some that grew beyond their garden borders a couple of times, I can relate.
The book is mostly fiction, containing a series of short stories or vignettes about various characters and their struggles to live with lantana. In that sense it follows a typical literary theme of “man versus nature” or “civilization versus wilderness” — with the antagonist taking the form of a shrub whose exuberant growth will not be stopped. It’s unusual for a plant to feature this prominently in a work of fiction, so that — along with Ms. Dark’s lyrical writing style — makes for a delicious read. Lantana becomes an ominous presence in many scenes, not entirely unlike its appearance in the 2001 murder-mystery Lantana (also set in Australia) where the shrub waved menacingly throughout the movie and (spoiler alert!) was used to hide a corpse. Stand aside, Audrey Jr. — The Little Shop of Horrors is amateur hour compared to exploding invasions of lantana.
“The culture of the florists’ lantana is relatively simple. It is grown under glass for bloom in cold weather and also in the open in summer. It has been improved in its usefulness as a bedding-plant of late years, largely through the efforts of French hybridists. The older varieties were mostly rather tall and lanky, later coming into bloom, and dropped their flowers badly after rain-storms, but were showy in warm and dry weather. The new varieties are dwarf, spreading and bushy in habit, early and free-flowering, and the heads or umbels of bloom average much larger, with florets in proportion; nor do they drop from the plants as did old varieties in bad weather….
“These newer kinds are not so well known as they should be. They are very desirable for any situation where sun-loving bedding plants are used, in groups or borders, window boxes, baskets and vases.”
Whenever I see the word “yore” (as in the second quotation above) — which is of course not often! — I can’t help but think about the Friends episode called The One with the Apothecary Table, where Rachel Green tries to convince Phoebe Buffay that the apothecary table she bought from Pottery Barn was anciently manufactured in historical White Plains and purchased from a flea market for the “old time pricing” of “one and fifty dollars”. There’s a short clip of the episode here, where the first three and a half minutes include two of the apothecary table scenes.
If there’s such a thing as post-consumerist humor, The One with the Apothecary Table is a great example, where the characters as a group simultaneously love and hate mass-produced products, yet respond to the subtle (or not so subtle) advertised messages by opening their wallets and stuffing their apartments with objects from a catalog-created theme.
The episode is a fun play on history also. Subsequently asked to identify an historical era other than “yore”, Rachel adds “yesteryear” — and “yesteryear and yore” briefly re-entered American vernacular as a way to describe ambiguous time periods in the past. I’ve used them myself sometimes, sometimes together and sometimes separately; and the cultural pervasiveness of a series like Friends is so strong that almost anyone who hears the terms knows they’re actually a reference to the comedy of the apothecary tables.
Yesteryear — for example, in 2018 or 2019 or 2020 — I wouldn’t have even tried to convert some of the lantana photos from the previous three posts to images with black backgrounds, because the tiny spaces embedded in the central portion of the blooms were too difficult to brush out without bleeding black onto the flowers themselves. Until I spent several weeks practicing — especially on the Lilies on Black Backgrounds series from this past summer (where I describe my black background technique) — I didn’t have enough experience with Lightroom’s brushes to fill these areas with black where the surrounding structure was as intricate as it is on these lantana flowers.
With macro photos like these, depth is largely a contrast and shadow illusion, an illusion that overlooks the fact that all photographs are two-dimensional renderings of what our eyes would perceive three-dimensionally. Bright-to-dark transitions typically register in our minds as front-to-back perspective, and shadows around edges (as muted as they might be) contribute to that recognition. In other words, if I didn’t leave some of the shadows around the edges of the pink flower buds, those image elements would look flat to the eye, and, as a result, the entire image would look unnatural and artificial.
If you look at one of the original images — say this one, of the first photo below — you will see green color from the plant’s stems and leaves surrounding most of the pink center buds. On my “first draft” of these photos, I kept that green intact, but since most of them had no other green, it seemed distracting so I decided to try and get rid of it.
To remove the green without brushing around each of the little pink pillows, I used a Lightroom feathered and circular brush the size of the pink section only and clicked on a bit of green color toward the center. The feathering setting for the brush kept the pink color intact, retained most of the shadows at the edges of each pink bud, and replaced the green with a black that matched the rest of the background with a single press of the mouse button. No more green — and Voila! — the blossoms themselves totally look like they’re suspended in mid-air!
“Lantana have been long in cultivation, and it is difficult to refer the garden forms to botanical species. The species themselves are confusing. Most of the garden kinds are of the L. Camara type….
“In recent years, a strain of very dwarf varieties has become popular as border plants. The lantanas are free-flowering in winter and summer, but an odor of foliage and flowers that is disagreeable to many persons prevents them from popular use as cut flowers. They are very useful in window-gardens and the dwarf kinds make good subjects for hanging baskets….
“From the window they may be transferred to the open in summer, where they bloom profusely.”
The botanical confusion allusion in my quotation from the Cyclopedia above made its way into my researching around the web for quotes about lantana. The short version of the story, which I finally got a handle on, is this: the plant’s colloquial name as lantana was co-opted from the name of an unrelated plant — viburnum lantana — and older books will sometimes refer to garden or wildwood lantana as viburnum instead of lantana. And, to stumble my brain even a bit more, garden lantana is a member of the verbena family of plants — and some references in historical sources simply refer to lantana as verbena, especially references to wilder variations as opposed to varieties cultivated for gardens.
Make sense? haha! If it’s in someone’s garden, and it looks like my photos, it’s lantana camara. If not, it’s not!
“Lantana is the saving grace of the fall borders. The dark leaves keep their color until frost, and the flowers bloom on and on. I noticed that butterflies return to them again and again, after short trips to other flowers.”