If you’re looking for a bold and showy shrub, Leonotis is a good place to start. These distinctive African plants are fast-growing and have interesting, brightly colored blossoms which attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
What Is A Leonotis?
Leonotis leonurus, or lion’s tail, is an evergreen shrub from the mint family (Lamiaceae). These plants are also commonly known as lion’s ear and wild dagga. Amusingly, the scientific name for this plant means lion-colored lion ear.
Leonotis is a semi-evergreen shrub, depending on the climate where you grow it. These plants grow to about 8 feet (2.4 m) tall and equally wide in warmer climates but may be restricted to about 5 feet (1.5 m) in cooler zones.
Lion’s tail plant is native to South Africa, where it grows in a variety of habitats.
Lion’s tail leaves are usually about 5 inches (12.5 cm) long and rough-textured. These oppositely arranged leaves have weakly serrated margins and a distinctive herbal aroma if crushed.
The lower stems of these plants are pale and woody but light and brittle, and upper branchlets are greener and square-shaped in cross-section.
Leonotis flowers are unusual and striking orange flowers. Each flower is a two-lobed tubular blossom, growing up to 2 inches (5 cm) in length. These fluffy flowers emerge in profusion from a spiky ball-shaped flower head on the upper stems.
Leonotis has a prolonged flowering period from as early as spring until fall in warmer areas but if grown as an annual in colder areas, expect this plant to flower in the fall after being started indoors in the spring.
The seeds of this plant are held in unusual-looking seed heads which resemble paper wasp nests.
Other Leonotis Species
Leonotis nepetifolia, which is often known as Christmas candlestick, is usually a smaller species that is also occasionally used as an ornamental. This species from tropical Africa has broader leaves and a larger flower head, but with smaller, less showy flowers.
Unfortunately, these plants can be quite invasive and are now common weeds in tropical areas of the world. (1)
How To Grow A Leonotis Plant
In warmer areas, this plant will remain evergreen, whereas frost will cause it to drop its leaves. In frost-prone areas, it is possible to grow this plant as an annual by starting it from seed indoors and moving it outside after the last frost.
Leonotis is a very fast-growing plant that can reach 6 feet (1.8 m) in a single year if planted from seed. The seeds don’t need any treatment and can be sown in the ground or in pots before replanting when they reach around 6 inches (15 cm) tall.
Leonotis seeds are stick-shaped and can be shaken loose from the dried seed heads. (2) Grow these seeds in a fine and light substrate with plenty of organic material worked into it.
Lion’s tail plants can also be grown readily from green stem cuttings of 5 inches (12.5 cm) or so. Remove the lower leaves from your cuttings and plant them in a mix of sand and peat moss, and they should develop roots within a month or two.
These plants can be grown in a variety of fast-draining soils but will do best in rich, loamy soils. They are quite drought-resistant, but the gardener is advised to keep this plant well watered in the summer months for good growth.
Growing this plant in full sun will promote the most flowers, but these shrubs will also survive in partial shade in USDA zones 8 to 11.
Care and Maintenance
Leonotis is a versatile plant that can be grown as semi-evergreen, perennial, or annual. These are low-maintenance shrubs when grown within their preferred climate ranges but will require a good amount of extra care if grown in colder places.
Generally, these plants should be pruned annually, after flowering, to promote a denser growth form. If grown outdoors in areas with frost, prune it down to about 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) and protect the crown from frost damage with a layer of mulch. The plant should grow back strongly in the next spring.
Fertilizing is not strictly necessary with these plants, but they do enjoy fairly rich soil. If yours is very poor, consider using organic fertilizer in the spring and applying a 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) deep layer of organic mulch around the stem to encourage fast growth. (2)
These hardy plants are usually quite a pest- and disease-resistant.
Uses of Lion’s Tail
Leonotis could be used as a background plant for other shrubs or even as a screen, but it can be a little too bold for these applications. Leonotis works great as an accent or specimen plant and can be even be grown in a large container.
This is a great choice for wildlife gardens because of all the pollinators it attracts.
The leaves and stems of this plant are mostly used. Traditional uses include smoking the leaves as a tobacco substitute with a mild narcotic effect or used to make a tea.
Lion’s tail is also used in traditional medicine for the treatment of a wide variety of conditions, including snakebites, cramps, colds, headaches, and skin conditions like eczema. (3)
This plant attracts hummingbirds and sunbirds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators because of its sweet nectar. Fortunately, Leonotis is also highly deer resistant.
Leonotis is a striking and fast-growing shrub. The bold and bright colors of this plant can be shocking in mass plantings so use this shrub as an accent or specimen plant, especially if you wish to attract pollinators to the garden.
Also check more types of orange flowers you can grow.
(1) Weeds of Australia Factsheet: Leonotis nepetifolia. Retrieved at https://keyserver.lucidcentral.org/weeds/data/media/Html/leonotis_nepetifolia.htm
(2) Turner, S. Plantzafrica. Leonotis Leonurus. South African National Biodiversity Institute. Retrieved at http://pza.sanbi.org/leonotis-leonurus
(3) van Wyk, B., van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. Medicinal Plants Of South Africa
*image by LifeCollectionPhotography/depositphotos