“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.
“Although the Canna is not a bulb, it is always associated with bulbs. It would seem out of place anywhere else, and a list of bulbs would appear incomplete without it, as would any collection of ornamental plants. But few plants are better known than the Cannas, and few less appreciated. Because of [their] free-growing habit, thriving under almost any circumstances, they are generally grown without care and in a manner that does not, in any degree, develop their beauty or usefulness….
“Although a swamp plant, it will thrive most luxuriantly in dry soil, if made rich. For large groups on the lawn, for planting against fences or unsightly places it has no equal in the list of ornamental plants. One of its great attractions is that it will grow anywhere, and always ornament its surroundings….
“Whether in clumps or in rows, the plants will completely cover the ground, forming an impenetrable screen when planted at that distance apart.”
“Years ago, Kodak was fond of telling photographers to ‘put a little bit of red in your compositions and the world will notice.’ This is because red is the most advancing color. It immediately comes forward to grab the viewer’s attention, no matter where it is in the composition. In fact, all warm colors — not only red, but also orange and yellow — advance. Cooler colors, such as blue and green, recede, falling into the background. By combining advancing and receding colors, you can make your subject pop and add depth to your image.”
The official name of the plant in these photos is: Cannova Bronze Scarlet Canna Lily. The hardiness quote above — from a book published in 1893 — is certainly appropriate, and I’ve grown a couple of different canna varieties in large pots in my courtyard. They’ve done quite well that way, and, possibly, will get a new location in the ground next spring where they can spread superiously without any potted constraints. They don’t seem to care too much whether they have a lot of sun or a little, and I’ve even grown them in my pond — where they’ll come back for several years (though the pond gets only limited filtered sunlight), as long as we don’t have a hard freeze (and maybe even if we do).
Canna flowers have always seemed odd to me — not unattractive but with a somewhat alien looking structure. Only about half of the flower petals ever fully open, and, unlike, say, irises, I don’t find interesting things to photograph from different camera angles. They all look alike to me, regardless of how I approach them, so I don’t photograph them that often. The leaves captivate me more; and as you can see in the second trio of photos below, they open with a distinct uncurling effect, growing rapidly in the first few days while showing off stripes of red, orange, yellow, and green. The leaves seem to glow — especially in morning light — and I suspect they may have evolved that extra luminosity to attract pollinators.
I took the first three photographs early in the day, and the last four in late afternoon — then studied how their red color (which is pretty intense) varied between the first and last. The color red can be a challenge to photograph and process “correctly” (search for Why is red hard to photograph? if the subject interests you), but I noticed right off the bat that the morning photos seemed cooler in color than those taken in the afternoon; and, indeed, Lightroom shows much more yellow (or orange as a blend of yellow and red) in the histogram and color panels for the last four. I don’t think this necessarily means that morning light produced cooler colors than afternoon light (one of the many color photography questions for which you can find the exact opposite answer from different websites (see Is morning or afternoon light warmer?)) — but more likely occurred for other reasons. You see, my canna lilies are in front of a patio table with a large umbrella over it, and in the morning there’s more shade on the cannas than in the afternoon — because the sun rises over the back of the umbrella but sets toward the front, allowing more sunlight to ray on the plants as the day progresses. So, short version, in the afternoon there’s more white/yellow light on the plants, which desaturates the red and highlights the orange, since orange is often within the color ranges of anything our eyes dub as “red.”
That’s all pretty nerdy, I suppose, but it can be fun to try and sort out why colors appear the way they do — especially when dealing with natural subjects where color emerges at the molecular level, but our eyes tend to ignore distinctions and focus on dominant shades. If I asked you “what color are these flowers?” — you wouldn’t say that they’re red with a bit of orange and some flashes of yellow and maybe even some blue… you would simply say: “They’re red!”
I recently learned color production in plants is called biological pigment, and their pigments are segregated into different categories based on the colors those plants produce (see What Makes Flowers So Colorful for an excellent overview). Red, as it turns out, produces highly reflective wavelengths, which in part accounts for how excessively saturated it often appears to our eyes and our cameras.