How to Care for a Lion’s Tail Plant

The lion’s tail plant (Leonotis leonurus) is also known as a lion’s ear plant and is grown as a perennial in the Southern United States and an annual everywhere else. It grows to 36 inches with an equally wide spread. The outstanding feature of the lion’s tail plant is the blooms that appear along the square stem in whorls of white or orange, depending on the variety. They have a velvety texture and are soft to the touch. The plant blooms in the fall, adding interest to the fall garden. In Africa, lion’s tail is used in traditional medicine to treat coughs and asthma. It is also considered a snake repellent when planted in the garden. The flowers of the lion’s tail make a long-lasting cut flower and are attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds.

Plant the lion’s tail in full sun or a place in the garden that receives at least six hours of direct sun each day. The location should have a soil composition that is well-drained. If you are planting a new lion’s tail plant, clear the area of weeds and work a 1-inch layer of compost into the top 3 inches of soil before planting. Plant the lion’s tail at the same level it was planted in the previous location.

Fertilize the lion’s tail plant with an organic granulated fertilizer in the spring when it begins to show new growth. Scratch the surface of the soil around the base of the plant, sprinkle the fertilizer over the soil and add water to the fertilizer to help it wash into the soil or the mulch layer. Organic fertilizer will not burn the roots of the plant if applied over the roots. Only use as much fertilizer as recommended on the fertilizer container label for side-dressing perennials

Cut back lion’s tail using a pair of hand shears in the fall after the blooms have faded and the foliage turns brown. In warmer areas where it remains green, cut to the ground to stimulate new growth and cover the root base with a 1-inch thick layer of mulch. In temperate locations where it comes back in the spring, cut to the ground and cover the root base with a 1-inch layer of mulch. When adding mulch, add the mulch layer around the root base but do not cover the crown. Covering the crown may cause the plant to rot over the winter.

Leonotis leonurus (Lion’s Tail) – An erect evergreen shrub to 4 to 6 or more feet tall by nearly as wide with a branching woody base that produces many erect herbaceous stems bearing dark green 4 to 6 inch long narrow lanceolate leaves with softly serrated margins. From late spring through fall appear the fuzzy orange curved tubular flowers held in whorls at spaced intervals around the top half of the long upright stems with newest buds produced near the branch tips. Plant in full sun in a well-drained soil. This plant is drought tolerant but can tolerate and thrive with regular irrigation and it can survive and remain evergreen in temperatures down to 20 degrees F and if it freezes back in the winter, it will often resprout with new growth from hardened wood – for this reason it is often treated as a perennial and has been known to grow in the south of England and USDA Zone 8 gardens. In cold locations plants should be mulched well to protect the wood crown and in even colder locations can be grown as an annual. It responds well to pruning, remaining more dense and smaller and should be pruned yearly after flowering. It is useful as a screening plant but can occasionally reseed in the garden. The flowers are good in arrangements (stem bottom should be burned) and it is known to attract birds (a magnet for hummingbirds), bees and butterflies to the garden, yet deer seem to leave it alone. Though southern California gardeners have long called this plant Lion’s Tail it is also known by some as Lion’s Ear, Lion’s Claw and Minaret Flower. The name Lion’s Ear is a translation of the name given to the genus from the Greek words ‘leon’ meaning “lion” and ‘otis’ meaning “ear” in reference to the resemblance of the flower to a lion’s ear. The specific epithet leonurus means “lion colored”. It is also known as Wild Dagga (a name also used for the unrelated Cannabis sativa) because of its traditional medical uses in South Africa, where it is found growing naturally among rocks in the grasslands of the Cape district and the Transvaal. We have grown and sold this great garden plant since 1988. The information on this page is based on research conducted in our nursery library and from online sources as well as from observations made of this plant as it grows in our nursery, in the nursery’s garden and in other gardens that we have observed it in. We also will incorporate comments received from others and always appreciate getting feedback of any kind from those who have additional information, particularly if this information is contrary to what we have written or includes additional cultural tips that might aid others in growing Leonotis leonurus.

Leonotis Plant Information: Lion’s Ear Plant Care And Maintenance

A gorgeous tropical shrub native to South Africa, lion’s ear (Leonotis) was transported first to Europe as early as the 1600s, and then found its way to North America with early settlers. Although some types can be invasive in tropical climates, Leonotis leonorus, also known as minaret flower and lion’s claw, is a popular ornamental in the home garden. Read on to learn about growing Leonotis plants and the many uses for Leonotis lion’s ear plant in the garden.

Leonotis Plant Information

Leonotis is a fast-growing plant that can quickly reach heights of 3 to 6 feet. The plant consists of sturdy, upright stems that bear rounded clusters of fuzzy, reddish-orange, tube-shaped blooms measuring 4 inches across. The colorful blooms are highly attractive to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

In its native habitat, Leonotis grows wild along roadsides, in scrublands and other grassy areas.

Growing Leonotis Plants

Growing Leonotis plants perform best in full sunlight and nearly any well-drained soil. Lion’s ear plant is suitable for growing as a perennial in USDA plant hardiness zones 9 through 11. If you live north of zone 9, you can grow this plant as an annual by sowing seeds in the garden shortly before the last expected frost in spring for autumn blooms.

Alternatively, plant seeds in containers indoors a few weeks earlier, then move the plant outdoors after all frost danger has passed. If a container-grown plant fails to bloom the first autumn, bring it indoors for the winter, keep it in a cool, bright place and move it back outdoors in spring.

Lion’s ear plant propagation can also be achieved by taking cuttings from established plants in late spring or summer.

Lion’s Ear Plant Care

Lion’s ear plant care is minimal. Keep newly planted Leonotis moist, but not soggy, until the plant is established. At that point, the plant is fairly drought tolerant but benefits from occasional watering during hot, dry weather. Be careful not to overwater.

Prune the plant after flowering and as needed to encourage more blooms and to keep the plant neat and tidy.

Uses for Leonotis lion’s ear plant abound:

  • Leonitis is a striking plant that works well in a border or privacy screen with other shrubby plants.
  • Lion’s ear plant is ideal for a butterfly garden, especially when combined with other butterfly magnets such as bottlebrush or salvia.
  • Leonitis is relatively salt-tolerant and is a beautiful addition to a coastal garden.
  • The showy blooms work well in floral arrangements too.

Leonotis leonurus (Lion’s Tail)

Leonotis leonurus (Lion’s Tail) is a semi-evergreen, erect shrub prized for its dazzling orange flowers, reminiscent of Lion’s tails. Blooming from late spring through fall, the tubular two-lipped fuzzy flowers, 2 in. long (5 cm), of this South African native appear in tiered whorls around the top half of the long upright stems. The foliage of lance-shaped, dark green leaves, to 6 in. long (15 cm), is aromatic when bruised. Lion’s Ear is perennial in areas with mild climates and works well as an annual in regions with cold winter temperatures. It can survive temperatures as low as 20ºF (-6ºC) and will often resprout with new growth from hardened wood if it freezes back in the winter. A striking plant if kept well groomed, Lion’s Tail looks outstanding when combined with lavender or fall blooming salvias.

  • Grows up to 4-6 ft. tall and wide (120-180 cm).
  • Easily grown in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun or light shade. This plant is not fussy about soils as long as they are well-drained and watered regularly. Drought tolerant but performs best with regular irrigation. In cold location, plants should be mulched to protect the wood crown.
  • Deer resistant but attracts birds, butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Great for Mediterranean gardens, coastal gardens, cottage gardens or containers. May be used as a screening plant. The flowers are good in floral arrangements
  • Virtually disease free and pest free. Watch for spider mites, whiteflies and grey moulds when grown under glass.
  • Responds well to pruning, remaining more dense and compact and should be pruned yearly after flowering.
  • Propagate by seed or greenwood cuttings in late spring or summer. If grown as an annual, seed should be started indoors in winter or sown in the garden before the last frost date for flowering in fall. If grown as a tender perennial, seed can be sown in containers which are moved outside after last frost date.
  • Native to South Africa

The Lion King

Slightly sprawling and rain-battered, but nevertheless looking spectacular in the garden at the moment is one of my favourite plants, and a worthy first plant profile for my blog: Leonotis leonurus, or Lion’s Ear (the name literally means “lion-coloured lion’s ear”).

Leonotis leonurus is one of nine species of Leonotis, all of which occur in the wild in tropical and southern Africa. Only two are widely grown in horticulture, the other being L. nepetifolia, which has wider, more oval-shaped leaves than the narrow lance-shaped leaves of Leonotis leonurus, and is an annual, reaching flowering size from seed in a single season, and would therefore be a good substitute in colder areas, where the perennial Leonotis leonurus would not survive over winter. Leonotis nepetifolia seeds are sometimes sold labelled as Leonotis leonurus, but it is easy to tell the two species apart:

Differences between L. leonurus and L. nepetifolia. Source: Vos, W. T. (1995). A systematic study of Leonotis in southern Africa.

Leonotis leonurus is a member of the Lamiaceae family, which is in the order Lamiales. The Lamiaceae family is the sixth largest of all flowering plant families, with over 7,000 species, and so has been divided up into several sub-families to help botanists get a handle on it. Leonotis is grouped in the subfamily Lamioidae, along with relatives including Phlomis, Lamium, Stachys and Molucella. All have a two-lipped corolla (the part of the flower made up of petals) with four stamens (the male flower parts, containing pollen) arranged under the upper lip.

Leonotis leonurus has a long and fascinating history, and was one of the earliest South African plants to be cultivated in Europe. It is thought that the Lamioidae tribe originated about 24 million years ago, with the common ancestor of Leonotis and its other living relatives evolving around 10 million years ago, probably in Asia, before diversifying and spreading to Africa, where Leonotis subsequently evolved. In fact, recent research based on DNA analysis has revealed that Leonotis, though morphologically distinct, is not genetically distinct from its closest relatives, members of the genus Leucas.

Leonotis is distinguished morphologically by the dense orange-red hairs covering the corolla, and the short lower corolla lip that withers within an hour or two of the flower opening, while the rest of the flower lasts for several days. The flowers of Leonotis are pollinated by sunbirds, rather than insects, and it is thought that these morphological characters may be an adaptation to bird pollination: the large lower lip of most Lamiaceae flowers provide a landing platform for pollinating insects and are often showy. Having an insignificant lower lip discourages insect visitors, and the orange colour could be particularly attractive to birds. Leonotis, rather than being a genetically distinct group, may in fact simply be bird-pollinated Leucas, and the name may change in the future to reflect this.

In its native South Africa, Leonotis leonurus is pollinated by sunbirds. . Leonotis is distinguished by the dense orange-red hairs covering the corolla, and the short, insignificant lower corolla lip. Pollen is brushed onto the birds forehead from the anthers which are orientated downwards at the upper lip of the corolla. The stigma elongates as the flower matures and eventually protrudes from the upper lip, and the dense fringe of hairs along the edge of the upper lip of the flower brushes pollen from the bird’s head onto the elongated stigma.

Leonotis leonurus remained in Africa until European explorers arrived in the 17th century, searching for new additions to their gardens. One such explorer was the Dutch botanist and physician Paul Hermann, who in 1672 was sent to the Dutch East India Company in Sri Lanka to be the medical officer. He called at the Cape of South Africa on the way, where he made the first known pressed specimens of local plants. In 1680 he returned to the Netherlands to become professor of Botany at Leiden, where he died before he had a chance to write up an account of the 791 plants he had collected at the Cape. However, while at the Cape in 1672, he had given some specimens and seeds to the ship’s surgeon, who after returning home gave the specimens to the Danish scientist Thomas Bartholinus who used them as the basis for an article he published in 1675, which is thought to be the first ever published list of South African Plants, and where the earliest known illustration of Leonotis leonurus can be found.

The earliest known illustration of L. leonurus. .Hermann’s collection of carefully pressed and mounted specimens of plants he collected at the Cape in 1672, amazingly still survives, preserved in beautiful condition at the Natural History Museum in London. .Incidentally, these early specimens pre-date Linnaeus’s invention of the binomial (genus/species) system of naming plants and animals, and scientific names for plants then consisted of descriptive phrases in Latin which, confusingly, varied between authors. One such “phrase name” for Leonotis leonurus was “Sideritis Cannabina Aethiopica frutescens, Phoeniceo flore maximo, villoso”, roughly translated as “South African, shrubby, Cannabis-like Sideritis, flowers very bright red, softly hairy”. The word “cannabina”, cannabis-like, could refer to the fact that the native Khoikhoi were reported to smoke the dried leaves and flowers as a mild narcotic. In 2009, L. leonurus was reported to be one of the main ingredients of the legal high ‘Spice’ which was growing in popularity across Europe, as a result of which the plant was classified as a narcotic and banned in several European countries. Leonotis leonurus is not related to Cannabis, however, and its pharmacology and toxicology is poorly known, so smoking it is not to be recommended.

Plants were soon growing in Dutch gardens and the seeds were gradually distributed through the network of keen botanists and gardeners that existed across Europe at the time. In 1712 it was first grown in the UK by the keen gardener and botanist Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort, who was responsible for many introductions to UK horticulture, at her London garden at Chelsea, and she no doubt provided material for her neighbour the Chelsea Physic Garden, which was soon to enjoy its golden age under the celebrated head gardener Phillip Miller.

Specimen grown by the Duchess of Beaufort in her Chelsea garden in 1712. .Pressed specimen of a plant growing at the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1771. .Leonotis leonurus features in Miller’s great work, the Gardener’s Dictionary, where he describes it thus:

These Plants are very great Ornaments in a Green-house, producing large Tufts of beautiful scarlet Flowers in the Months of October and November, when few other Plants are in Perfection, for which Reason a good Green- house should never be wanting of these Plants, especially since they require no artificial Heat, but only to be preserved from hard Frosts, so that they may be placed amongst Oranges , Myrtles, Oleanders etc.. in such a Manner, as not to be too much over-shaded with other Plants; but that they may enjoy as much free Air as possible in mild Weather… These Plants will grow to be eight or nine Feet high, and abide many Years; but are very subject to grow irregular, therefore their Branches should be pruned early in the Spring, in order to reduce them to a tolerable Figure; but they will not bear to be often pruned or sheer’d, nor can they ever be form’d into Balls or Pyramids, for if they are often shorten’d, it will prevent their flowering.
180 years later Miller’s advice seems apt, since my own plant has survived the last two winters planted out without protection (in the company of oranges and oleanders), situated against the south-facing wall, where I cut it down to about 30cm from the ground in early Spring each year, in an attempt to keep its rapid, sprawling growth under control (though I took my eye of the ball this year and it quickly outgrew its allocated space). It’s over 300 years since this species was first grown in the UK, and it surely deserves to be more widely grown. Why not try growing it in a sunny, sheltered spot or, for the more risk- averse, in a container which can be brought into a cool, sunny porch or conservatory during hard frosts?

Leonotis leonurus
Countries where L. leonurus grows in the wild

Lion’s Ear

Lion’s ear is a great but often underutilized perennial that produces clusters of fuzzy orange flowers beginning in late summer or early fall.

Characteristics

Lion’s ear (Leonotis leonuris) is a semi-woody perennial that belongs to the mint family and is native to southern Africa where it grows in rocky grasslands.

Gardeners love this plant for its brightly colored, tubular flowers that appear along the stems in late summer or early fall and attract honeybees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. In South Florida, lion’s ear will continue blooming throughout the winter months and into spring.

When grown under optimal conditions, lion’s ear can reach five feet tall and four feet wide.

Planting and Care

Lion’s ear can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 8-11. In zones 8 and 9 it may freeze to the ground in winter but will usually come back strong in the spring.

This drought-tolerant plant needs a well-drained soil, since overly wet soils can kill the plant. Lion’s ear prefers a location in full sun, though it will also grow in part shade.

Gardeners who enjoy passalong plants will also like lion’s ear, since cuttings can be used to start new plants. It occasionally reseeds although not aggressively.

For more information on lion’s ear, contact your county Extension office.

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