Natural La Jolla: Lantana’s bright flowers attract butterflies and birds


Growing in sunny spots in many gardens at this time of year is lantana. Sometimes called red or yellow sage, and a member of the verbena family of plants, lantana grows widely across the southern United States. The main species cultivated is Lantana camara, but there are dozens of varieties and hybrids.

Native to the tropical Americas, lantana is successful here because it is fairly salt tolerant and drought resistant. This makes it ideal for growing in coastal locations like La Jolla, although it has a tendency to become invasive in some places if it escapes cultivation.

A favorite visiting spot for butterflies and hummingbirds, lantana can be planted to attract pollinators of many types. All parts of the plant are said to be poisonous to animals, although birds reportedly enjoy the fruits. This shrubby plant has bright green leaves and cheerful bunches of flowers, often with multiple colors and hues on the same umbrella-shaped cluster.

The flowers have a unique fragrance that’s not quite flowery. The smell has been described in various ways, both pleasant and unpleasant (citrus, sage, onion, spicy, herbal); I think it smells more peppery than anything. The leaves do smell like citrus (lemons) when crushed.

A sun-loving perennial here or annual plant in cooler climates, lantana continues to bloom throughout the summer and into the fall, giving us bright spots of yellow, orange, red, and white.

— Kelly Stewart is a marine biologist with The Ocean Foundation, working with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. Her “Natural La Jolla” column about the flora and fauna of La Jolla appears second Thursdays in La Jolla Light. She may be reached at