Dear Readers, anyone who has ever visited a tropical butterfly house will have come across lantana. There are about 150 species, but the one that’s mostly seen is Lantana camara, otherwise known as Spanish Flag. It comes in a wide variety of colours – the orange one shown above seems to be the commonest. The flowers change colour as they mature, leading to multicoloured umbels – in the plant above they varied through apricot to tomato-red, with the lighter-hued blooms being the ones that have not yet been pollinated. There are many, many varieties, including the rather more demure one below.
One thing is for sure: these plants are a butterfly magnet. They form part of a genus of 150 different species in the Verbena family, and are native to tropical regions of the Americas and Africa: I saw Lantana growing wild when I was in Costa Rica. A wide range of butterfly and moth species feed on the flowers, especially swallowtails and birdwings, skippers and brush-footed butterflies such as the glasswing butterfly (Greta oro) of Central America, shown below.
Glasswing butterfly (Greta oro) on lantana (Photo One)
Furthermore, the seeds of lantana are loved by birds, and herein hangs a tale. Lantana is considered a noxious weed in many parts of the world where it has been introduced, notably Australia, South Africa and some parts of Asia. It has also become naturalised in the warmer parts of North America. Because the leaves of the plant are toxic to herbivores, most grazers and browsers won’t eat them (and become sick if they do). Meantime, the birds eat the berries and distribute the seeds in their droppings. Among the species that eat the seeds are the superb fairy wren (Malurus cyaneus) of Australia;
Male superb fairy wren (Malurus cyaneus) (Photo Two)
and the endemic Mauritius Bulbul (Hypsipetes olivaceus)
Mauritius bulbul (Hypsipetes olivaceus) (Photo Three)
In Australia, lantana has become so prevalent that various insect controls have been tried in order to reduce its vigour. Of the thirty species introduced, some have become problems in their own right. The rather handsome Mexican lantana bug (Aconophora compressa) was brought to Australia in 1995, in the hope that it would munch its way through the plants that it was named after. Alas, the lantana bug has extensive and varied tastes, and has eaten many plants that were not supposed to be on the menu, including the popular ornamental trees fiddlewoods (also from the Americas), which are related to lantana. The case of the lantana bug led to much greater testing of the appetites of proposed bio-remedial species: this insect was tested with 62 species to see if it ate any of them, but fiddlewoods were not included.
Lantana bug (Aconophora compressa) (Photo Four)
Ornamental fiddlewood (Citharexylum spinosum) (Photo Five)
So, lantana continues to run riot in many parts of the world where there are no pests to contain it, though I was cheered to hear that the swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) is one of the few mammals that can eat the leaves without keeling over.
Swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor (Photo Six)
I was also happy to hear that in some places in Australia, lantana is actually increasing biodiversity. In urban green spaces, it provides nesting cover for birds such as the fairy wren in the absence of native species that will do the same thing, and so provides a refuge for these attractive little birds to reproduce. Urban areas are not pristine habitats, as a brisk walk around East Finchley will show: we have plants from all over the world here, and the insects and birds take advantage of the longer flowering period and range of different microhabitats. It’s a very different thing in an endangered habitat. As Stace says in his book ‘Alien Plants’:
‘In disturbed native forests, Prickly Lantana can quickly become the dominant understorey species, disrupting succession and decreasing biodiversity. At some sites, infestations have been so persistent that they have completely stalled the regeneration of rainforests for more than three decades‘.
A plant out of its own habitat, without the native pests that keep in check, can quickly become an environmental disaster. Plus, lantana produces chemicals in its roots that check the growth of other plants. In areas with cold winters, the plant doesn’t survive, but if I was planning on growing it, I would choose one of the sterile varieties that are available that don’t produce fruit.
Lantana growing in an abandoned citrus plantation in Israel (Photo Seven)
Lantana leaves have been used medicinally for a wide range of complaints, including malaria, tetanus and rheumatism. They are also believed to be efficacious in cases of snakebite. In India, where lantana is particularly invasive in mountain regions, local people have been making furniture from the plant, as it is considered a good substitute for traditional materials such as bamboo. Because of the toxicity of the lantana, the furniture is also not eaten by termites and beetle larvae. In an IUCN report, it indicates that using lantana in this way has increased income and productive work days for the villagers who are involved. The problem now is a shortage of people with skills to create the furniture.
Lantana furniture (Photo Eight)
Now, have a look at the image below and see if you can guess who it’s by.
At first glance, I thought it was a photograph, but subsequent research revealed that the image, called ‘Tithorea harmonia in Lantana’ from 2009-10, is actually a faithful reproduction in oils of a photographic image. And I was very surprised to find that the artist was Damien Hirst. Of this series of paintings that aim to reproduce photographs, Hirst says;
“I want you to believe in them in the same way as you believe in the ‘Medicine Cabinets‘. I don’t want them to look clever, but to convince you. I’m using painting to produce something that looks like a bad quality reproduction – the painting process is hidden as it is in my work ‘Hymn’, which looks like plastic, but is bronze underneath.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised: Hirst has long been fascinated by butterflies and other insects, and has used them extensively in his art. Usually, it hasn’t ended very happily for them, as in the image below, where real dead butterflies are stuck onto gloss paint (to be fair, I believe that Hirst acquired them when they were already dead).
For Boys and Girls (Damien Hirst 1989-92) (Photo Ten)
To me, his relationship with animals has always been strictly functional – he uses them to prove a wider philosophical point, as in his famous piece ‘A Thousand Years’, where maggots hatch, feed on a cow’s head and are killed in an Insect-o-cuter. Another exhibit at Tate Modern in 2012 featured live butterflies who hatched, flew around and died, next to an exhibit of the gloss paint and dead butterfly paintings. And then, of course, there was the shark.
‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) (Photo Eleven)
It’s interesting how Hirst has gone from being the Enfant Terrible with the shark in a tank to someone who reproduces photos in oil paints, but he has never been afraid to experiment and to change. I suppose that his early work, in particular, is difficult to ignore – I saw his ‘Mother and Child Divided’ in an exhibition in Oslo in the ’90’s, and found it both fascinating and deeply distressing. For me, he sums up everything that is wrong with our attitude to the rest of the living world; everything is there to be plundered and used for our entertainment. But for others the fact that he raises these questions is part of his appeal. He has always been polarising: for some, the most interesting of the Young British Artists of the 1980’s, for others a cynical showman. I would be very interested to hear what you think!
Mother and Child (Divided) (Damien Hirst 1993)(Photo Twelve)
And finally, a poem. I can’t tell you how much I love this work by Grace Paley, especially her evocation of ‘sadness and hilarity’. I know exactly how that feels, having been alternately laughing and weeping for most of the past six months.
I went out walking
in the old neighborhood
Look! more trees on the block
forget-me-nots all around them
ivy lantana shining
and geraniums in the window
Twenty years ago
it was believed that the roots of trees
would insert themselves into gas lines
then fall poisoned on houses and children
or tap the city’s water pipes starved
for nitrogen obstruct the sewers
In those days in the afternoon I floated
by ferry to Hoboken or Staten Island
then pushed the babies in their carriages
along the river wall observing Manhattan
See Manhattan I cried New York!
even at sunset it doesn’t shine
but stands in fire charcoal to the waist
But this Sunday afternoon on Mother’s Day
I walked west and came to Hudson Street tricolored flags
were flying over old oak furniture for sale
brass bedsteads copper pots and vases
by the pound from India
Suddenly before my eyes twenty-two transvestites
in joyous parade stuffed pillows under
their lovely gowns
and entered a restaurant
under a sign which said All Pregnant Mothers Free
I watched them place napkins over their bellies
and accept coffee and zabaglione
I am especially open to sadness and hilarity
since my father died as a child
one week ago in this his ninetieth year
Photo One by By Eddy Van 3000 from in Flanders fields – Belgiquistan – United Tribes ov Europe – the wings-become-windows butterfly., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3479928
Photo Two by By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12075434
Photo Three by By Josh Noseworthy – Mauritius Bulbul, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36538595
Photo Four by By James Niland from Brisbane, Australia – Lantana TreehopperUploaded by Lymantria, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24777384
Photo Five by By Vinayaraj – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27369697
Photo Six by By jjron – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4022225
Photo Seven by By RickP 12:16, 3 May 2006 (UTC) – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=753347
Photo Eight from https://tudelft.openresearch.net/page/15576/15-lantana-furniture-siruvani-india
Photo Nine from www.damienhirst.com/tithorea-harmonia-in-lantana
Photo Ten from http://www.damienhirst.com/for-boys-and-girls
Photo Eleven from http://www.damienhirst.com/the-physical-impossibility-of
Photo Twelve from http://www.damienhirst.com/mother-and-child-divided-ex