LANTANA IN A GARDEN is pretty in an understated way: sweet
while you’re looking at it, but forgettable the moment you glance
away. It has tiny clusters of multihued flowers, which range in
color from white to purple to pink to red to yellow. The plant’s
berries, poisonous when unripe, lie nestled between dark, serrated leaves. Those who try to pick them may come away with
Away from a gardener’s shears, there is nothing lovely about
lantana. The bush sprawls into a tangled mess. It covers up the
soil, blocking out the sun for lower-lying plants. Here we have
none of the majestic arches of trees, none of the delicacy of a
trailing vine, not even a sweet aroma to lend the plant a favorable
impression. Lantana climbs, twines up with itself, and grows a
woody labyrinth where small creatures hide.
Lantana was introduced from the Americas to India (via British colonizers) about two centuries ago. Once free of colonial
gardens the plant spread with ease, hybridizing at will. Its haphazard trajectory across the countryside is di;cult to track, although not many have tried. Those who care strongly enough
about lantana to invest the time are primarily interested in killing the plant rather than tracing its history in depth.
By the 1870s government o;cials in British-ruled India were
already speaking about lantana in faintly apocalyptic terms.
“When left to itself, [lantana] grows some 15 feet high, and gradually forms an impenetrable thicket, destroying all other vegetation,” read one report in The Madras Mail about the South Indian
co=ee-growing region of Wayanad in 1875. By the beginning of
the twentieth century, lantana had become such a pervasive presence in South and Central India that it was frequently evoked
in British colonial hunting narratives. English gentlemen would
send hounds to root jackals from the shrub’s dense shade. By
the 1910s, concerned that lantana was overwhelming cultivable
land and also posing a fire hazard, the Indian forest department
started pouring resources into control of the plant. But these efforts had little e=ect.
Burn it without reaching the part of the plant that lives beneath
the soil, and lantana springs back. Cut it, and each individual cutting becomes a new plant. Laboriously uproot it, and you have
already lost, for berry-eating birds disperse lantana’s many seeds.
Despite the government’s attempts to kill o= the plant, violence
to the landscape actually seemed to suit lantana, even if it suited
little else. Through drought and flood, lantana kept growing.
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED lantana’s tiny bright flowers in 1996,
when my family moved from sleepy rural Washington to the five-million-strong South Indian city of Bangalore. Indian markets
were newly liberalized and Western products and companies
were beginning to edge into the country, but the far-reaching effects of that change were not yet evident. Everything was new
to me—the people, languages, food, architecture. One thing I
drank in with country-starved eyes was the novel greenery, of
which there was plenty. Back then, Bangalore was still brimming
with trees. The northern half of the city was built by the British
in the nineteenth century and planted with the usual flowering
tropical trees and shrubs that British-empire builders adopted
and spread across the globe. Lantana was one of them.
I asked someone for the name of this plant that clumped in
abandoned lots. “Queen Anne’s Lace,” someone told me. This
The mistake was telling, however. In a big city, lantana fades
into a general backdrop of urban weeds. Describe the plant, and
few will know it. Place an orange-red flower in their hands, and
memories might stir of a wild thing on the side of the road. I
wondered at the time how it had ended up with such an English name (it would be years before I found out what the shrub
was actually called). Clearly the plant was yet another colonial
leftover, in a city and a country that seemed hopelessly mired in
Where did the scars of colonization leave o=, and India begin?
I found it hard to tell, back then. As a displaced Indian-American
who had seen very little of India despite my hyphenated identity,
VIOLENCE TO THE LANDSCAPE ACTUALLY SEEMED TO SUIT