14 December 2013

Favourite Nectaring Plants #3

Butterflies' Favourite Nectaring Plants
The Prickly Lantana (Lantana camara)

This third article of butterflies' favourite nectaring plants features the Prickly Lantana. One of the all-time favourites of butterflies and other insects, the Prickly Lantana is visited by quite a large number of butterfly species - from the very small diminutive species like the Pygmy Grass Blue, to the large majestic butterflies like the Common Birdwing!

Typically, butterflies' choice of nectaring plants is quite dependent on the structure and size of the flowers relative to the length and diameter of the proboscis of the butterflies. The quality and quantity of the nectar that the flowers of the plants produce is probably another key factor in the popularity of the plants that butterflies frequently visit for their daily food supply.

Plant Biodata :
Family : Verbenaceae
Genus : Lantana
Species : camara
Country of Origin : Tropical America
English Common Name : Prickly Lantana, Shrub Verbena, Tick Berry
Other Local Names : Bunga Tahi Ayam, 马缨丹, 鸡屎花

The Prickly Lantana originated from tropical America The native range of the plant includes Mexico, parts of the Caribbean, Central America, Venezuela, and Colombia. It has become naturalized in tropical and warm regions worldwide. It can be seen in the wild and along footpaths, deserted fields, and wasteland areas that have been cleared. It thrives best where the climate is close to its native climate, with high heat and humidity. In some countries the Prickly Lantana is considered an invasive weed.

In Singapore, it can be found growing wild and rather untidily at the fringes of the nature reserves as well as a cultivated plant in urban parks and gardens. The plant is easily propagated by seeds, which are dispersed by birds, or through stem cuttings. It is an evergreen bush that prefers full sun where it can flower profusely throughout the year. It is related to the Snakeweed (another butterfly nectaring plant) and comes from the same Verbenaceae family.

The Prickly Lantana is a perennial multi-branched, upright, arching or scrambling shrub that usually grows 2-4 m tall which forms dense thickets. Stems are long and weak, square in cross section, prickly with glands on young parts. It can occasionally grow like a vine or a "climber" if given support by other vegetation, in which case it can even reach up to 15 m in height.

The mid-green leaves of the Prickly Lantana are matt, deeply veined and usually hairy and rough to the touch. The lamina pear or oval shaped, pointed to broadly-rounded apex, rounded base, with toothed margins. When the leaves are crushed, a strong and pungent odour is exuded, giving rise to its Malay name, "Bunga tahi ayam" which is literally translated as "chicken shit flower". In my opinion, the distinctive odour of the plant is not that offensive to give the poor plant such an unfortunate name!

The small flowers are borne in dense clusters, with each cluster containing about 20-40 flowers. These flower clusters are borne on stalks that originate in the leaf forks. Individual flowers are tubular and come in a great variety of colours (i.e. white, cream, yellow, orange, red, pink or multi-coloured). In Singapore, flowering occurs throughout most of the year. The colourful flowers give the Prickly Lantana a certain attractiveness as a cultivated landscape plant in gardens.

From Left to Right : Newly formed fruits of the Lantana camara to the purple ripened berries

The fruits of the Prickly Lantana resemble 'berries' (they are actually drupes) and are slightly fleshy. The small, round fruits (5-8 mm across) are initially glossy green when fresh, but turn black, purplish-black or bluish-black as they mature and ripen. Each fruit contains a single hard and stony seed (2-4 mm long) at its centre. These seeds are light brown in colour and egg-shaped. The berries are edible when ripe, and is largely eaten by birds, which also aid in the dispersal of the plants.

The plant is believed to be mildly toxic and there have been reports of animals taken ill after ingesting the leaves of the bush. In traditional Southeast Asian medicine, the leaves are pounded and the paste applied to treat wounds, ulcers and swellings. A concoction of the leaf paste is also used to expel intestinal worms and to increase menstrual flow. An extract of the roots is believed to be able treat toothaches, inflammation and even veneral diseases such as gonorrhea!

Variety of colours of several cultivars of Lantana camara flowers

When cultivating the Prickly Lantana in gardens, it should be noted that successful flowering requires the plant to be placed in locations with full sun. It can tolerate poor soil and even slightly waterlogged locations but will not grow well in conditions that are too wet. The plant thrives in lowlands as well as mid-montane habitats such as Fraser's Hill in Malaysia.

Orange-red hybrids of Lantana camara

In a garden setting, it can sometimes inhibit the growth of other species of plants by the allelopathic substances produced by its shoots and roots. In Singapore, the plant is susceptible to leaf mould which damages the leaves of the plants into a wrinkly mess, and dries up the plant and gives it a straggly look. Under such circumstances, it would be better to remove the entire infected plant and start over again.

Butterflies love the flowers of the Prickly Lantana. Whether in the nature reserves or in public parks and gardens, when the flowers of this butterfly-attracting bush are in full bloom, chances are that you will see butterflies visiting the bush and feeding at the flowers. Amongst the various cultivars of the plant, bearing a whole range of colours, the orange-red flowered ones are the most attractive to butterflies.

Papilionidae species feeding on Lantana camara flowers

Despite the perceived small size of the flowers, the larger butterflies of the Papilionidae family also visit the flowers. This suggests that the structure of the flowers are designed such that butterflies of all sizes are able to probe their proboscis into the flower for nectar. It is also very likely that the concentration and quantity of nectar that the flowers produce makes the Prickly Lantana one of the favourite choices of butterflies for their nectar source.

Pieridae species feeding on Lantana camara flowers

Amongst the Pieridae, we have often seen the fast-flying Emigrants stopping at the Lantana flowers to feed, as would the various Grass Yellows as well. Practically all representatives of the butterfly families, perhaps with the exception of the Riodinidae, have been observed feeding on the flowers of the Prickly Lantana.

Satyrinae species feeding on Lantana camara flowers

Even the shade-loving Satyrinae, which are not often seen feeding at flowers, feed on the nectar from the Lantana flowers. The various Nymphalidae subfamilies like the Nymphalinae, Danainae, Heliconiinae and Limenitidinae are known to visit Lantana flowers.

A selection of Nymphalids feeding on Lantana camara flowers

Amongst the small butterflies of the Lycaenidae, many of the urban species like the Grass Blues, Flashes and others have also been observed to feed on nectar from Lantana. It would also be relevant to note that the flower buds and young shoots of the Lantana are also caterpillar food for some species like the Pygmy Grass Blue.

Lycaenidae species feeding on Lantana camara flowers

The fast-flying Hesperiidae, or Skippers also like the flowers of the Lantana, often visiting in the earlier hours of the morning. It is when butterflies are distracted whilst feeding on the Lantana flowers, that photographers can approach the usually skittish butterflies to take a good shot of them.

Hesperiidae species feeding on Lantana camara flowers

Despite the pungent smell of the leaves of the Prickly Lantana, many gardens that are planned to attract and enhance biodiversity often select this plant amongst the flowering horticultural palette. No urban butterfly garden can afford to be without the Prickly Lantana as a 'must-have' plant. Besides featuring attractively coloured flowers, the Prickly Lantana is one of the all-time favourites as a nectaring plant for butterflies.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir, Khew SK, Henry Koh, Horace Tan & Mark Wong

Other Favourite Nectaring Plants in this series :

#1 : Snakeweed (Stachytarpheta indica)
#2 : Stringbush (Cordia cylindristachya)


vajrapani said...


Love the pics. I want to smell the lantana before I plant them as i don't want to offend any neighbours. Is there any park in Singapore you can advise that I can find these lantana?

Commander said...

Thanks, Vajrapani. There's Lantana at Pasir Ris Park Butterfly Garden, Hort Park and a lot of other places! Alternatively you could go to a flower nursery. This plant is quite commonly available. At the entrance plaza of Gardens by the Bay (around the driveway, all the green verge is planted with Lantana)

vajrapani said...

Many thanks and will make a trip to your suggested spots asap. Cheers!

Nick Morgan said...

Lovely post with some great picturse of butterflies. I always search out Lantana when I am on holiday somewhere warm, as there are almost always butterflies feeding on the flowers. I have never noticed the bad smell, though. Have you noticed how the unopened buds look like miniature butterflies?!!