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Lantana camara L. 1753
pronounced: lan-TAN-uh kuh-MAH-ruh
(Verbenaceae — the lantana family)
common names: Lantana
Lantana is the ancient Latin name for the plant Viburnum, named for its similar foliage; camara is a vernacular South American name for a species of lantana. This is a genus of about 150 species of perennial flowering plants, native to tropical regions of the Americas and Africa. It has been introduced as an ornamental plant into numerous areas, particularly in the Australia-Pacific region. It has become a noxious weed in most of these areas. Its spread is aided by the make-up of the plant. As the leaves are somewhat poisonous, it is not grazed by animals. It is known to be allelopathic, i.e., it produces chemicals specifically designed to retard the growth of other plant species around it. The fruit is a delicacy for many birds, and they distribute the seeds in their droppings. A single square metre of lantana can produce several thousand berries, and the birds do the rest. Australian scientists being obsessed with finding biological controls for all plant and animal pests, some 23 species of insect have been introduced into Australia to try to control the spread of lantana, but without any great success. One of the few of these insects that has thrived, the Lantana Bug, has now become a horticultural pest in its own right. There are some moths and butterflies whose caterpillars feed on lantana, but they don’t appear to have had much effect on its spread. There are estimated to be some 4 million hectares of Australian soil with lantana in sole occupation, and in Queensland alone 1200 animals on average are killed by lantana poisoning each year. The swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) is one of the few mammals that can eat lantana leaves without apparent ill effect.
As a positive aspect, lantana flowers are pretty. The aromatic flower clusters (umbels) are a mixture of red, orange, yellow, or blue and white florets. The flowers typically change colour as they mature, resulting in inflorescences that are two-coloured. They supply honey to a great number of butterfly species, especially the swallowtail and bird-wings. Also, some of the weaver birds highly value the flowers for decorating their nests. An ability to produce spectacular and innovative decorations on their nests seems to be desired by the female birds, to attract the males.
Although the stems even of the larger lantanas are thin, the wood is very tough and durable, and so useful for various handicrafts such as wickerwork. The Soliga people of Karnataka in India now use lantana in their wickerwork instead of the bamboo that the lantana has forced out of their lands. By selectively harvesting the lantana, they are again able to make a living, as well as helping the recovery of the ecosystem and reducing the risk of forest fires.
A few years ago, while walking along the foreshore of Sydney Harbour between the Taronga Park Zoo and the shore, I came upon a conservator employed by the Zoo to regenerate the foreshore adjoining the park. As there was quite a deal of lantana infesting the area where she was working, I commiserated with her on the problems it was undoubtedly causing her. I was most interested in her reply, which was to the effect that, where she wanted to get rid of it to plant native species, it was quite easy to grub out; and in the meantime it provided cover for quite a few species of ground birds that would otherwise be prey for hawks and other predators.
There are some areas of serious infestation on Magnetic Island. One of these is near the Sphinx lookout area above Arcadia. I have also noticed that the plant is spreading on the landward side of the Nelly Bay - Geoffrey Bay Road. A recent visitor to the summit of Mount Cook tells me that the summit and its approaches are now very heavily infested.
Among the Lepidoptera caterpillars that feed on Lantana are:
• the Tiny Grass Blue Zizula hylax;
• the Ivy Leafroller Cryptoptila immersana;
• the Pecan Stem Girdler Maroga melanostigma;
• the Lantana Scrub Hairstreak Strymon bazochii;
• the Catabena Moth Neogalia sunia; and
• the Lantana Flower-Cluster Moth Epinotia lantana.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2008, 2011
Page last updated 20th March 2018