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Yardsmart: The boys of summer

You don't really know lantana until you've seen it in a hot, frost-free climate. It's a colorful monster, growing increasingly vivid in the dead heat of summer. Temperatures over 110 degrees send it into overdrive, producing even more color when all else withers.

These bedding boys of summer are checked at the end of the season by frost in the North. But in the southern climes they keep growing into enormous thickets, climbing into trees, invading shrubs and spreading over vast areas. The fact that they're in flower during all four seasons means they yield blackberries carried by the birds to germinate far and wide. Thus, the perfect plant that is both heat- and drought-tolerant, and continuously in flower, can literally run amok in both gardens and the American wild lands.

Lantana is one of the most heavily bred South American genera due to its incredible flowers. Inspect them closely to discover a rainbow of hues on a structure botanists call an umbel. This golf-ball-sized umbel is composed of many tiny tubular flowers perfectly adapted to hummingbirds. When the new flowers are formed at the center, they may be yellow in color. As these mature, they darken to orange in the outer rings and then to red, while more new yellows are produced at the center. The process continues until each umbel, which can last for a month or more, becomes a lovely combination of red, orange and yellow. When it does finally quit producing new central flowers, the ovaries of all these tiny trumpets enlarge into shiny blackberries the size of a BB

Breeders have crossed species and hybrids of big, rangy lantana to adapt these plants to various garden uses. They are always looking for new flower colors and combinations. The best advancement is the production of sterile hybrids that do not produce fruit, and therefore won't spread into the wild. Other hybrids are more compact so the plant fits into smaller gardens without taking over. Still more offer a creeping characteristic that makes better low-growing groundcover. When used as a potted plant, it cascades like a wave of color over the edges. When buying lantana it's important to find a tag that notes size and habit. Otherwise, you may buy one that either doesn't fill in the space provided or grows so large that you have to continually hack away at it. In cooler climates, buy your lantanas in one-gallon container sizes so you get a well-established plant in bloom. The varietal names don't mean anything if you can't see the flower. Flower color can influence the character of your garden. The super-neon varieties are great for the hot, tropical style. There are some lovely pastels of pink and lemon yellow, which blend perfectly into the cool cottage-garden look. There are also solid colors such as Spreading Sunshine, which produces golden-yellow blossoms on a very flat, creeping plant. Due to the tiny serrations on the stems of some larger lantanas, they can be difficult to pull out by hand. It is best to wear gloves, particularly for those with sensitive skin. Each year the intensity of the summer lantanas never ceases to amaze, for they are tough and floriferous. Nothing lures hummingbirds quite as well and for so long in the season. In the deserts of the Southwest where the temperatures soar in July and August, old lantanas can become truly epic bloomers. But elsewhere, they are the midsummer salvation of those who failed to plant flowers earlier in the year. Turn to these beauties that bloom best during the heat and enjoy non-stop color until the frost finally knocks them down.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. Read the blog at www.MoPlants.com/blog. E-mail her at mogilmer(at)yahoo.com. Also, join her online for the Garden Party social networking at Learn2grow.com.)