Leonotis nepetifolia  'Shrimp Cocktail' growing with  Tithonia  species

Leonotis nepetifolia 'Shrimp Cocktail' growing with Tithonia species

Towards the end of summer, plants with soft orange inflorescences tower above a late flowering mix of Coreopsis and Tithonia in a kitchen garden in Skåne, Sweden. The flowery columns belong to the genus Leonotis, a member of the mint family, the Lamiaceae. This genus consists of annuals, perennials and deciduous and evergreen shrubs with aromatic leaves and 2-lipped tubular flowers produced in fantastic whorls on tall stems. This is a plant that I have not seen often in gardens and that is a surprise, as it is particularly impressive. The only places I have seen it growing recently was in a Swedish kitchen garden and in the cottage garden at Sissinghurst. It looked distinctly architectural planted amongst late flowering annuals. The more familiar species of this genus are L. leonurus and L. nepetifolia, frequently confused with each other because they share the same common names.

The species Leonotis leonurus is a native of South Africa, known commonly as Wild dagga, Christmas candlestick or Lion’s ear, tooth or tail. It is a shrubby perennial that bears striking red, orange, yellow or white tubular flowers in whorled spikes up to 2m in height providing vivid late summer colour in the border with a long flowering period. Flowering can be further prolonged with regular deadheading of spent flower heads to promote new side shoots. The plant shape can also be manipulated to produce a more branched candlestick shape.

 Spires of  Leonotis nepetifolia  'Shrimp Cocktail'

Spires of Leonotis nepetifolia 'Shrimp Cocktail'

Leonotis nepetifolia (Klip dagga, Christmas candlestick or Lion’s ear) is related to L. leonurus but can be distinguished by the difference in leaf shape and size, the leaves being larger and more like the leaf of Nepeta cataria (Catnip). Also, the flowers are borne in smaller globular clusters (50-60mm) compared to L. leonurus (up to 100mm). In its native habitat, it is a weed of fallow ground and loved by pollinating insects and nectar feeding birds. L. nepetifolia derives from tropical and subtropical Africa and southern India but is considered a problem weed in other tropical areas such as the tropics of Australia because it displaces native species. In UK gardens, it looks great teamed with Cosmos, Ammi, Calendula, Coreopsis, Tithonia, Helianthus and dark coloured varieties of Alcea.

A particular variety I am going to grow next year is called Leonotis nepetifolia ‘Shrimp Cocktail’, which I discovered flourishing in a garden in Sweden. It has attractive and very tall spires of peach coloured flowers that do look like little pink shrimps. This was grown very easily from seed according to the garden owner and reached the soaring height of about 2 metres over the summer. Another species available to buy as seed here in the UK is Leonotis nepetifolia ‘Staircase’ which is a shade of reddish-orange. This variety can cope with some shade but one drawback is that seed germination can be erratic. Once plants are established in the borders they are considered fairly drought tolerant. In the UK, these species are best treated as annuals unless plants are taken under cover during the colder months. They can also be grown in pots and are an unusual and spectacular addition to a cut flower arrangement.