Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Verbenas

Butterflies frequent Verbena bonariensis, a South American native Verbena that thrives in our climate

Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives.  That is why I am always happy to discover a new group of plants that thrive in our climate, grow beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that don’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar.  Allow me to share another of my favorites….

The Verbenaceae family currently includes about 32 different genera, including both Verbena and Lantana.  Like the closely related mint family, Lamiaceae, the various species and cultivars in these groups share tiny flowers that grow in dense clusters, fragrant leaves, tough, sometimes woody stems, and abundant nectar that proves irresistible to a wide variety of pollinators.  

Pests and disease just aren’t a concern with members of the Verbena family.  Deer leave them strictly alone. Most are very drought tolerant once established, with Verbena x hybrida the most thirsty of the bunch. 

Verbena x hybrida, growing here with an ivy geranium and Euphorbia, often overwinters, though it is sold often as an annual. Propagate it easily from stem cuttings in warm weather.

The classic Verbena officianalis, known since classical times as a healing herb, remains a favorite in many herb gardens. You may also know it as vervain.  Native to Europe, but found growing naturalized throughout the world, it remains an important herbal ingredient in many products today due to its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-microbial and analgesic properties.  It is important in Chinese medicine as well as Western medicine.  While not a showy plant, it draws its share of pollinators.

Verbena hastata is native to Virginia

You may be more familiar with the perennial native Verbena hastata, and the Brazilian Verbena bonariensis.  These tall, upright hardy perennials bloom over a long season in the summer, self-seed and start easily from cuttings.  Both grow quickly into slender, statuesque plants that prove irresistible to butterflies and hummingbirds. 

Verbena bonariensis thrives at the Connie Hansen Garden in Lincoln City, Oregon

They aren’t picky about their soil and grow in full to partial sun.  V. bonariensis may sometimes develop some mildew in damp weather, but it is easily pruned away.   I found a huge clump of Verbena bonariensis in a West Coast garden that towered over me by at least a foot.  It was still in full bloom in mid-October.  For a more compact plant, try V. bonariensis ‘Lollipop’.

The Verbena x hybrida found in most garden centers each spring is a perennial, though it is often used as an annual.  Found in a rainbow of colors, it will bloom non-stop until frost in favorable conditions.  When you examine a nursery pot of this hybrid Verbena, you might notice roots growing from some of the stems near the crown.  If you prune these off behind the roots, and carefully dig those small roots out of the pot, you have a division ready to plant.  A single pot may yield several plants, which is useful when planting up a large basket or pot.   Stems also root easily in damp soil or water.

If you leave the plant to overwinter in a sheltered spot, chances are good that new growth will appear the following spring.  For a reliable perennial Verbena, try Verbena canadensis, ‘Homestead Purple.’  This is always sold among other perennials, while Verbena x hybrida is grouped with the ‘annuals.’  Both plants perform well as spreading ground covers and form a thick mat of rooted stems.

Full to part sun will keep the blossoms coming, but they are heavy feeders and respond well to time-release fertilizer as well as fish emulsion used several times a month when watering.  Keep them watered in very hot weather, and deadhead regularly for the most abundant flowers.

I had one of those “Ah-ah!” moments when I learned that Lantana belongs to the Verbena family of plants.  Of course.  How had I missed that before? 

Lantana feeds butterflies, hummingbird moths and other pollinators. Birds eat its seeds from mid-summer through the following spring.

Lantana is native along the East Coast to our south and along the Gulf Coast.  It is considered an invasive shrub in some parts of its native range.  In Virginia, it is just considered a very reliable, wildlife friendly, easy plant to grow.

All parts of a Lantana plant are poisonous.  Don’t allow any child or pet to taste any part of the plant, and gardeners with sensitive skin should wear gloves when working with it.   It can cause mild skin irritation, but more serious effects if swallowed.

If you’ve overwintered Lantana camara, you know that some cultivars grow woody in a single season.   Lantana ‘Miss Huff’ is the gold standard in our area for returning reliably each spring.  Several seedling cultivars of ‘Miss Huff’ have been marketed in recent years and prove nearly as reliable.  I favor Lantana ‘Chapel Hill Gold’ and ‘Chapel Hill Yellow,’ but there are at least six now in this series.  

Lantana ‘Chapel Hill Gold’ grows with Salvia ‘Mystic Spires’ in the Butterfly Garden at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

Lantana montividensis is sold as trailing purple Lantana.   It remains low growing, but stems may reach out 3’-4’ from the crown.  It displays very well in pots and hanging baskets.  The flowers are a pastel lilac and may be a bit smaller than Lantana camara flowers, but they bloom reliably and will overwinter most years, even in a hanging basket.

Lantana montividensis cascades over the side of the pot in this mixed planting.

Lantana is slow to grow in spring, especially if spring comes late, as it did this year.  If a plant doesn’t show growth by mid- May, it likely needs to be replaced.  We leave our Lantana in place until late February before cutting them back to no more than 12” tall. Cutting the plants back too early may make them less likely to overwinter.  Birds shelter and forage among the woody stems and fallen leaves. 

Lantana will easily root from the nodes and spread itself into large clumps, if allowed.  It will self-seed and cuttings root easily.  It is a fast grower.   Established plants of some cultivars may top 6’ tall by October.

Whenever I am looking for butterflies to photograph, I begin at the Lantana or Verbenas.  There may be four or five different types all feeding together along with many different types of bees and clear wing moths.  Hummingbirds zoom in for a sip many times each day.  Lantana not only supports pollinators, but its fruit support birds from early summer long into the winter.   These are among the easiest and most entertaining plants in our garden.

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore

3 comments

  1. Verbena bonariensis is a bit too happy to disperse seed here. However, just when it seems like it is becoming a weed, it gets to an equilibrium, so that it is sort of always around, but is not too overwhelming. I can not figure out how it does that. It did it at the farm years ago, and then did it here within the past few years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a great way to describe it. I’m thrillled to dig up and move seedlings in the spring because I like it so much. And, it was still blooming here in early November. But it is taking over my Iris border at the garden and I may need to thin it out some this year, unless it has ‘thinned’ itself over our very cold winter…. I wouldn’t ever call it a weed; just a very promiscuous and persistent perennial 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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