Leonotis leonurus

Claire continues the medicinal plants series, and writes:

Thank you to Meighan (Meighan@Flickr) of Vancouver, Canada for these photograph of a fascinating shrub, Leonotis leonurus (via the BPotD Flickr Pool). Original images are here and here. Thank you, Meighan!

To some, Leonotis leonurus is best known as wild dagga (a name sometimes used for Cannabis sativa, but note that Leonotis leonurus has no biological or chemical relationship to Cannabis sativa). However, to gardeners, one of its “lion” common names (lion’s ear, lion’s claw, lion’s tail) is more often applied to this lovely perennial shrub with bright orange pubescent flowers.

The species is relatively hardy as well as being tolerant of drought. In South Africa, it is found in grasslands where it grows among rocks. Of the nine recognized species of Leonotis, Leonotis nepetifolia is the only one naturally found outside of Africa (in southern India).

Leonotis leonurus is classified in the mint family, Lamiaceae (formerly Labiatae). The Lamiaceae is chock-full of aromatic, herbal, and medicinal plants such as oregano, lavender, sage, rosemary, marjoram, thyme and teak, to name just a few. The medicinal properties of Leonotus leonurus are well-known to African and east Asian cultures (the species has naturalized through much of the tropical world). The Zulu and Xhosa peoples of southern Africa (along with others) utilize this plant for both human and animal medicine, including treatment of respiratory symptoms, snake bites, and skin ailments. Premarrubiin and marrubiin are two compounds present in the plants that may be linked to healing effects, as similar compounds are used in the treatment of wet coughs and bronchial disease. Leonurine, an alkaloid present in the leaves, shoots and flowers, is a well-known active compound in some communities — it is documented to have mild sedative and euphoric effects when smoked, hence the name “wild dagga”. Indeed, Leonotis leonurus was used by the Khoikhoi people as an inebriant (PDF).

I would think the majority of us prefer to enjoy lion’s ear in our gardens, as the flowers attract bees and butterflies in addition to their beautiful orange colouration. Since it has a late flowering season, I’m hoping that Meighan’s lion’s ear survived the cold front we had last week, so that it can be enjoyed just a little longer.

Leonotis leonurus
Leonotis leonurus

9 responses to “Leonotis leonurus”

  1. Patricia

    Thanks for the wonderful breakdown of the name of this shrub. I also am very interested in the medicinal qualities of plants. I like to explore the relationship between the genus/species and either the plant’s appearance or some other quality it possesses that may have contributed to it’s name. There is so much more to the plant world than the obvious.

  2. Ann Rein

    I love this plant. For me it’s a tender perennial, but it gets very large, over six feet this past season, and it loved our hot, dry summer, rewarding me with many tiers of bloom.

  3. Dana

    For Northeast Oklahoma, US, this is a tender perennial that may over-winter if it is mulched after the first frost. It is an amazingly beautiful, unusual fall blooming plant.

  4. elizabeth a airhart

    thank you beautiful plant and the pictures are so fine
    lions ears seems to be growing in my computer room happy event
    this internationl year has truly been interesting
    thank you for all your work daniel
    happy festival of lights friends

  5. Connie

    What an absolutely gorgeous pair of photos! The focus is perfect to really SEE what these flowers are like. Even the not as sharply focused parts only contribute to the beauty of this artwork. I am inspired to translate some of what I see in them to a knitting or crochet project. I am also going to find out whether I can grow Lions Ear in central Maryland, USA.
    Thank you.

  6. hollis

    great family! The Lamiaceae was one of the first I “learned”, via the shrubby sages and aromatic forbs of California, and remains a favorite.

  7. Monique in TX

    We always used to call this one “Poodle Mint.” It’s so cute the way the terminal flower clusters have two little leaves on top, as if they are wearing propeller beanies. I also like the fact that the flowers aren’t really orange. They’re beige with orange hairs. *What* a fun plant!

  8. Pat

    I know of no scientific study that found leonurine in a member of the genus Leonotis. This alkaloid is found in various spp. of Leonurus such as the common Motherwort used in European herbalism, Leonurus cardiaca, and the two Asian spp. used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as Yi Mu Cao, L. heterophyllus (= L. artemisia just to try for more generic confusion) and L. sibiricus. These spp. of Leonurus have also been touted as “herbal highs” for smoking.
    Leonotis does have distinctive diterpenoids such as leonotin, leonotinin, nepetaefolin and nepetaefolinol.
    There is an obvious reason for the confusion of these two genera (apart from the dopeheads naturally being confused), though they are very different in form.
    Did you assume we would all know Latin and Greek, so didn’t need to be told that Leonotis = lion’s ear and Leonurus = lion’s tail?
    Leonurus nepetaefolia has the more interesting common names: Christmas Candlestick (in the Caribbean if I remember correctly), Chandelier, Cordão de São Francisco (string of Saint Francis, Brazilian?). It is used medicinally over a much wider area.

  9. Pat

    Hee hee. I just noticed that I did it myself, I wasn’t careful enough with that last sentence and said it was Leonurus, it is of course, Leonotis nepetaefolia I was talking about.

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