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Plant of the Week: Desert Sun Lantana

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Desert Sun Lantana
Latin: Lantana camara 'Desert Sun'

No photo available.

Winter arrived early over the weekend with freezing temperatures as far south as Birmingham, Ala. By my reckoning -- at least according to our recent winters reminiscent of those normally encountered in the banana belt -- it arrived about a month early.

Saturday morning, after the dip to near freezing temperatures, it was easy to spot the plants with a tropical birthright and those with more temperate upbringing. The warm weather plants, such as lantana, were already looking forlorn and starting to turn black.

Lantana, a member of the verbena family, is a woody shrub native of tropical America that has long been cultivated as a garden plant. In the wild it can make a bush 6 or more feet tall, but in our gardens it is seldom seen more than a foot tall and perhaps 2 feet across. Some plant forms have a more decidedly upright habit while others are more trailing.

Flower color of ‘Desert Sun,’ is predominately orange, but the tiny trumpet-shaped blossoms go through a range of colors from the day they open until they fall off three or four days later, giving the 2- to 3-inch diameter flower heads a tri-colored appearance.

Lantana leaves are typical in shape with an ovate outline and a serrate margin and can grow 3 to 4 inches long. They are rough to the touch and aromatic when crushed, betraying the family’s close relationship to the mint family. When exposed to temperatures in the mid 30's, lantana leaves turn from their lusty green to gray-green and finally black.

Lantana, and in fact most plants from the warm tropics, turn black when exposed to temperatures well above freezing due to a phenomenon called "chilling injury." Just as a banana will turn black when placed in the refrigerator, these tropical landscape plants simply abhor the cold.

The reason chilling injury occurs, is because of the makeup of the cell membrane. Membranes are composed of a complex mixture of lipids and starches and are wonderfully sensitive mechanisms for holding the juices of life inside the cell and still permitting the orderly transfer of things in and out of the cell on an as-needed basis.

In tropical plants, the lipid component of the cell membrane coalesces as the temperature drops, creating tears in the cell membrane allowing the stuff of life to leak out of the cells. Many tropical plants show signs of chilling injury whenever the temperature drops below 45 degrees.

Plants from a temperature climate have adapted mechanisms to permit the membranes to function at colder temperatures. In super hardy trees from the timber line on mountains, the membranes can be protected to as low as minus 40 degrees F.

If your lantana froze back before you were able to collect cuttings for next year’s planting, don’t despair. While the leaves wither up and die at the first sign of cold weather, the stems are more freeze tolerant.

Many gardeners dig up choice plants, cut them back hard and then overwinter them in a bright location over winter. But, for a couple bucks, a wide assortment of new, vigorous plants are available from local nurseries in the spring so such effort seems hardly justified in today’s busy world.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - October 13, 2000


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.