Plants and Prose

Author of 'Exodus' Honored by Plant?

Leon Uris (1924-2003) wrote the epic Exodus about the founding of the State of Israel. You probably never read it but you might have seen the movie with Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint and the ill-fated Sal Mineo (poor guy, a roller coaster ride through Hollywood, then murdered during a botched burglary in his late 30's).

Until the end of the 20th century, I thought author Uris had a plant that was named in his honor: Leonotis leonurus. I figured the change of spelling at the end - from "is" to "us" - was some Latin mannerism.

WRONG.

single flowerhead of Leonotis

As featured in last week's blog, here's a close-up of a leonotis flower head. Despite my tendancy towards hyperbole, come late fall, this plant lives up to the hype. photo credit: Andy Carvin, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption photo credit: Andy Carvin, NPR

Leonotis leonurus is a South African mint family member otherwise known as Lion's Tail or Wild Dagga, though I've never heard it called anything but leonotus (leeya NOtice). A valuable medicinal (I think it's particularly popular in South America), the trade calls it a "tender perennial" so you'll still buy it in the hopes that it won't die come winter, but for most of you it's going to be an annual.

a gaggle of leonotis

Give your leonotis space and sun and behold summer in October. photo credit: Andy Carvin, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption photo credit: Andy Carvin, NPR

I garden in Z8 where my leonotis has been surprisingly reliable year after year. Or it was before Zoe Mae moved in. Alas, she has chosen that exact spot where dear Leon is growing to plant her four padded feet and stare down anything that walks down the street.

flower whorl in bud

How 'bout those buds? Like I said, whorls in tiers and a square stalk. photo credit: Velveteen Swirl hide caption

itoggle caption photo credit: Velveteen Swirl

This, of course, is unacceptable. Such a plant deserves much, much better, simply incomparable for the late fall garden when everyone but salvia's petered out.

And it's color! Pure, thirst-quenching orange. If you didn't know better, you'd think the plant in full flower was a fake: densely clustered spider-legged whorls of flowers growing in tiers along a square-stemmed stalk.

Check and see what others' experience with this plant has been in your area if you're skeptical, but I can't imagine you'll regret giving it a try. Once upon a time I tried a cultivar named 'Staircase' or 'Ladder' or Giraffe Legs', who the hell remembers, it was a towering 8' but way too lanky.

Stick with Leon's namesake.

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Cool story. I wonder how it will do in Sunset 19, competing with the oregano in the area around my pool.

(The Great Oregano battle continues - it's attacking the salvia now for control of the pot where the Owari Satsuma tangerine lives. I don't know which plant to put my money on!)

Sent by Lauren Uroff | 2:07 PM | 11-13-2007

I love leonotis! I put one in this spring and it's just lovely right now. I bloomed early in the summer, but is even better now. I have it in an area with blue salvias and it is a nice contrast. Can't wait to see how large it gets next year.

Sent by Jenn | 2:59 PM | 11-13-2007

I always spell it wrong because of Leon Uris too. The problem with this plant is that it gets woody and leggy as it ages. It is also an aggressive self-seeder (in Z9 at least). Hummingbirds and bees fight over mine all summer.

Sent by max | 4:31 PM | 11-14-2007

I just remembered, Annie's Annuals has a species, L. menthifolia, that they say is more compact and attractive.:
http://anniesannuals.com/plants/plant_display.asp?prodid=2411&account=none

Sent by max | 1:03 PM | 11-15-2007

This plant also makes a very good tea that will provide a feeling of warm relaxation. Funny that the author also mentions the genus salvia, as salvia divinorum is considered to be one of the most potent psychoactive plants in the world.

Sent by Kevin | 3:13 PM | 11-16-2007

I grew this from seed this year, lost the labels on one flat of seedlings, and planted them out wondering what I had. The plants grew...and grew and grew and grew but never showed any signs of flowering until maybe 6 weeks ago. (It's darn cold up here on this Fundy-swept mountain when the wind blows, and plants that like heat tend to sulk a bit. )I certainly didn't get the display shown in these flowers, but that orange colour is a jubilant blessing in October. I hope it will selfseed, but if not, I'll plant it earlier next spring, and put it in more sun and less wind. It's a Doctor Suess-Garden plant, don't you think? Right next to the Truffula trees.

Sent by jodi | 9:45 PM | 11-19-2007

This looks very similar to monarda-is it in the same family? I will try this this as fall color is always welcome.

Sent by Julie | 12:27 PM | 12-22-2007

I live in a warmish zone 5, but I fell in love with this plant - saw it in the New York Botanical Garden in NYC, guessing zone 6. Does anyone in cold climates dig up some sections and overwinter it, or would I have to grow it from seed every year?

Sent by Donna | 2:49 PM | 2-3-2008