Gardening

A toxic plant, allowed to thrive due to wilful ignorance, becomes an invading force that threatens to take root beyond the borders of one small urban garden. By Margaret Simons.

The dark curse of lantana

Yellow and pink lantana camara (common lantana) flowers.
Yellow and pink lantana camara (common lantana) flowers.
Credit: Wirestock, Inc. / Alamy

Every part of the common lantana plant is poisonous. The substance in question is triterpene, which can speed your heartbeat, make it difficult for you to draw breath and cause you to bleed from the anus.

You have to take a lot of it to have that effect, of course. But how can it possibly be that I have such an evil plant at my threshold and have managed not to know and even to quite like it?

And why is it that this morning, after watching the war on the breakfast news, I suddenly decided to drop my wilful ignorance and face the truth?

Lantana releases a chemical into the soil that prevents other things from growing. Hence, it can spread into huge thickets, crowding out other life. It is one of the worst plants Europeans have introduced to this country. The term “weed” has no absolute definition. A weed is a plant growing in the wrong place. My self-seeded celery has become a weed. Parsley can be a weed.

But lantana is the worst. It was introduced by people who thought they were improving the landscape. Even though it poisoned sheep and cattle, it was pretty, and it killed all the other “weeds” – many of them native ground cover – giving the illusion of control. By 1920 it had choked much of the east coast of Australia.

The lantana out the front is not even mine. It is rooted in my neighbours’ front yard. They are not gardeners and are happy just to have green stuff that does not die. Every season at the end of summer the lantana begins to lean over my side of the low wall that divides our properties and abuts my front door.

When I brush against it on my entries and exits, it gives off a scent somewhere between peppermint and sage. I have come to associate that smell with coming home.

At this time of year – from the end of summer through to early autumn – it is covered in baubles of white and yellow flowers that shed their petals. When the flowers die, there are seed pods. These, too, drop whenever the wind blows.

So, I have quite liked this plant.

By the time you get to my age, you should be done with most kinds of self-deception, but I have managed to sort-of know that this might be lantana, and not to know at the same time.

In the past couple of weeks, while I met multiple deadlines, the lantana had grown to lean over my threshold to the point where I couldn’t pass by without releasing a cloud of petals and seed capsules. This weekend it rained, which meant I was also releasing a shower of droplets, wetting my clothes and alarming the dog.

So today, after catching up on the war, I picked up the secateurs in a murderous impulse, flung open the front door and began to cut. For some reason, midway through the task, I pulled out my phone and used my plant identification app to take a photo. The answer came back: common lantana. Poison and destruction at my threshold. The legacy of invasion. The legacy of ignorance and arrogance.

I looked at the waste I had created. The footpath was covered with cuttings, petals and seeds.

I have been doing my best to be a good person these past couple of years, as the world changed and we all grew frightened. I have tried to be an even better person these past two weeks.

We are all profoundly helpless. But I had comforted myself by trying to be a positive influence on my immediate circle. I have tried to cope well.

Gardening is one of the ways.

I don’t have a neat and tidy threshold. This is because of my constant attempt to grow more food in very limited space.

Squeezed into the gap between the opening arc of my front door and the lantana wall are pots of spinach, basil and coriander. They prevent my door from opening fully, but if the apocalypse comes, I will still have fresh greens.

The rest of the front yard has been taken over by zucchini. There are only three plants, but they are huge, almost obscuring the little crab-apple tree I planted last winter. Every morning when I come back from walking the dog I tie her to the front fence and lean over, trying to spot the little fingers of zucchini and pick them before they become giant marrows.

I have made unreasonably large amounts of zucchini cake, and distributed slabs of it to neighbours and friends.

Then there are the beans growing up the fence opposite the lantana wall. I have been picking them every day and making fresh bean salad. My tomatoes haven’t ripened – I assume because of the cool start to the summer – but green tomato pickle and fried green tomatoes are fine things.

In my backyard and on my sundeck, I have had so many lettuces growing that I have been giving them away. I had a tub of them on the pavement outside my place – underneath the looming lantana – with a sign that read “free to good home”. I took some to the neighbourhood house and the local Foodbank.

Autumn is the time of harvest festivals, when you reap all the things that you have sown. Traditionally, at this time of year, our ancestors gathered and celebrated and stored – pickling and salting and laying things down, ready for winter. And it has been a harvest festival at my place.

And yet what smug delusion? Now I know and am done with not knowing – about the other things I have sown. In all my comings and goings of recent weeks, since the lantana started to flower, I have scattered its seeds on my pathway and on the footpath.

From there they have gone into the gutter and from there to the stormwater drains. No wonder lantana chokes the lower shores of the Moonee Ponds Creek. I could have known all this if I had chosen to know.

So this morning, I cut that lantana savagely – back to the fence line and beyond – and I swept up the bits as though they were glass and barefooted children were about to walk by.

What to do with the prunings? I couldn’t wish them away. Nor could I escape my responsibility just because it was my neighbours’ plant. I could hardly have a bonfire on the public footpath.

I put the cuttings in the green bin and hoped that the council composting operation is hot enough to kill the seeds. Surely the council knows about lantana and cares enough to be better than I have been?

Now I regard my threshold differently, and all my comings and goings. And my harvest festival is truly pagan, because it involves the dark, as well as the light, sin as much as virtue.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "Noxious blooms".

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Margaret Simons is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and author.

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