Lantana is a genus in the verbena family comprising of around 150 different species of flowering plants. Lantanas are perennials with beautiful flowers that provide a valuable nectar source for butterflies. They are easy to grow and thrive throughout Florida. Unknowingly to most gardeners, there are three lantana species that are native to Florida. They are:
Lantana depressa which can be broken into different varieties
· Lantana depressa var depressa common name "Pineland Lantana" or "Gold Lantana"
· Lantana depressa var floridana
Lantana involucrata common name "Buttonsage Lantana", "Wild Lantana", "Wild Sage"
Lantana canescens common name "Hammock Lantana", "Hammock Shrub Verbena"
I should say now that Lantana depressa and Lantana involucrata are the only two native lantanas I have found in native nurseries for sale.
These three species exist naturally in the southern counties of the Sunshine State. In fact, Lantana depressa is endemic to Miami-Dade. Unfortunately for the native lantanas, destruction of habitat and hybridization from invasive lantanas has led to a great reduction in naturally existing native lantanas. So much so that finding native lantanas throughout nature is rare.
Additionally, native lantanas are not sold in most nurseries. I believe that this is mostly due to the difficulty of propagation. This causes native lantana to be less cost effective than other native plants and the popular non-native sister - Lantana camara also sometimes called Lantana strigocamara. These species of lantana are sold under many common names and have several different varieties with several different color flowers. Lan. camara is also much easier to grow and propagate making it an easier, cost-effective plant that caters to most gardener’s needs. 1. Flowers 2. Lives year around. 3. Hard to kill. A final note on the difficulty in propagating native lantanas - due to the overwhelming popularity and existence of Lantana camara, it is hard to prevent hybridization of native lantanas in order to resell authentic natives.
So what's the big deal? Lan. camara sounds like a great plant right? The problem with these non-native lantanas is they grow too well in Florida. This makes sense knowing that Lan. camara is native to Central and South America. These lantanas are listed as invasive species in Florida. Which makes you wonder, why are we allowing big box stores and nurseries to sell invasive species? That's a topic for another time. Let's move on to how you can identify native lantanas from non-natives, so you don't accidentally plant the invasive species.
One of the easiest ways to know whether or not a lantana is native, is by what nursery you are in. I know this sounds overly simple. But that is because it is. If you are at a Home Depot, Lowes, or other big box store.... it is 99% of the time going to be non-native lantana. In fact, I would feel confident in saying that unless you are at a nursery that is exclusively native, 99% of the time there will only be non-native Lantana.
Another super easy way to tell apart native and non-native lantana is by flower color. Since these plants typically flower year around, it should be easy to tell them apart year around.
If there is obviously multiple colors in the flower, it is non-native. By obvious, I mean that from 5 feet away you can tell that each bloom is multicolored. These are typically varieties of Lan. camara sold under common names like "Confetti", "Landmark Rose", "Calippo", "Landmark Citrus", "Luscious Citrus", "Cherry Sunrise", and others.
Lantana depressa var depressa will have almost exclusively orange-yellow flowers. There may be a slight range within the orange-yellow during the life cycle of the flower. Occasionally, the flowers will be white with a yellow center. If the flowers are white with a yellow center, the distribution will be mostly equal across the entire plant compared to the Lan. camara varieties that have random multicolor flowers throughout a single plant. I have never personally seen Lan. depressa with white flowers and believe this occurrence to be less common. However, I have seen Lantana depressa var floridana with pale yellow - white flowers.
Although we can easily identify Lantana depressa against multicolored varieties of Lantana camara, it is difficult to distinguish the two when the variety of Lan. camara has solid yellow flowers. In fact, it is almost impossible when using the flower alone. Instead, you would need to compare the plants at mature heights to have a more accurate guess. Even then the distinction is difficult. In this case, it is best to avoid the plant entirely. Statistically speaking, the plant is probably Lan. camara or at best, a hybridization.
Lantana depressa var depressa
Lantana involucrata has small white flowers that can have a very slight pink around the edges. Typically the pink color just encircles the flower instead of changing the whole flower to pink. Observing this can help make the distinction between Lan. involucrata and Lan. camara varieties that flower white and pink. Additionally, the pink in Lan. involucrata is not always present or easy to see compared to Lan. camara flowers. Lastly, Lan. involucrata flowers are noticeably smaller than other lantana species.
Lantana canescens has small all white flowers or white flowers with a pin dot size yellow center. This is not enough to distinguish Lantana canescens from varieties of Lantana camara that appear very similar.
Leaf size and shape does not help much in distinguishing most lantana species. Lantana depressa and Lantana camara both have similar shaped leaves and texture. I think that Lantana camara leaves have a distinctive smell compared to Lantana depressa. But that is subjective. The similarities in size and shape make it even harder to identify the two species when yellow-orange blooms are present.
Lantana involucrata, on the other hand, will have some different shaped leaves than Lan. camara. On newer leaves, you can see a much more rounded leaf. This can help distinguish Lan. involucrata from Lan. camara although the most useful tool will be mature height. You can see the difference in the previously used picture showing it's bloom.
Lantana canescens unfortunately has a leaf similar in shape to Lantana camara with some small differences. But these differences are not easy to identify.
Mature Height and Growth Habit
Other than bloom color, this may be the most useful plant comparison tool for lantana species. However, it requires that you know the plant's age. Meaning that it is not very useful in nurseries. Nonetheless, let's talk about the differences.
Lan. camara varieties typically have leggy, upright growth habits with a mature height of 2-3 feet tall. There are some trialing varieties that mimic Lan. depressa. Bushier varieties can get much taller up to around 5 feet.
Lan. depressa has a trailing, low to the ground growth habit with a mature height of only 2 feet while capable of trailing outwards of 5 feet. I personally have never seen it trail this effectively. But I have also tried growing it outside of the endemic area. So you have to expect some growth habit differences especially when its native range is so small. You can use this growth habit to differentiate it between most types of Lan. camara. However, there is a trailing Lan. camara that has bold yellow blooms that will grow very similar to Lan. depressa.
Lan. involucrata is one of the easiest lantanas to identify by growth habit. This lantana, if left unchecked, will become bushy and can grow upwards of 5-7 feet tall. This growth habit, mostly unique blooms, and unique leaves make it the most easily identifiable native lantana.
Lan. canescens tends to grow in a leggy upright way reaching around 4 feet tall. This is typically taller than most Lan. camara varieties.
If you see super obvious multicolored blooms, it is non-native.
If you see solid orange-yellow blooms, it is very hard to distinguish between Lan. depressa and Lan. camara. At this point you will have to put all your trust in the nursery. If it is not a trustworthy native nursery, assume it is non-native.
If you see white blooms that may have a pink outer ring, AND the blooms are small compared to other lantanas you most likely have Lan. involucrata. Next, inspect the leaves for rounded, circular leaves instead of triangular especially near the blooms. If rounded leaves are present, you have increased the chance of Lan. involucrata. Next, if possible, look at the height of the plant. If it is above 4 feet high, congrats! You have Lan. involucrata.
If you see white blooms with a tiny yellow center, AND you are in South Florida, AND you are not in a nursery, you may be looking at Lan. canescens. Skip looking at the leaves and look at the growth habit. If the plant looks leggy and tall, there is a good chance you are looking at Lan. canescens.
After reading this, I hope you still feel intimidated about making correct identifications between native and non-native species. It is hard. So much so that it is almost worth avoiding lantanas in general to prevent the mistake of planting an invasive non-native. Additionally, unless you are in the endemic areas of Florida, planting Lan. depressa and Lan. canescens may be just as troublesome as planting non-natives. If I just shocked you with that statement.... let me explain.
First, remember that Lan. depressa is the most likely to hybridize with Lan. camara. So until we can eliminate the widespread distribution and use of non-native Lan. camara, we are only increasing the chance of hybridization by planting Lan. depressa. Also, as gardeners who place emphasis on native gardening, we have to realize that Lan. depressa has a tiny TINY native range inside of Florida. And to plant outside of that range contradicts some of our native gardening principles.
If you want to incorporate a native lantana into your native garden, I recommend using Lan. involucrata exclusively. It is easy to grow and easiest to positively identify. It is also a favorite among pollinators as a nectar source while its fruit and seeds play an important role in giving our native songbirds food.