Leopard Plant (Ligularia) Plant Profile

A Good Option for a Shade Perennial

Leopard plant (image) is a shade perennial. I grow mine under a cherry tree.
David Beaulieu

Leopard plant is the common name for more than 150 species of the Ligularia genus. They are herbaceous perennials with yellow flowers and, in some cases, very large leaves. The common name originated with the spotted foliage found on some of the native species, though this feature doesn't exist on most of the cultivated varieties.

Most Ligularia species are native to China, a few to Eurasia. A relatively small number of species are commonly cultivated for garden use, especially L. dentanta, also known as bigleaf ligularia. Most of the garden varieties are cultivars of L. dentanta, or hybrid crosses between L. dentanta and other Ligularia species.

Leopard plants produce golden flowers in clusters (technically called corymbs). In cold-winter climates, the first blooms arrive in early August and provide color for late summer. Warmer climates see blooms appear earlier in the summer. They are somewhat unusual plants, due to the fact that the flowers emerge from rather curious bracts.

Botanical Name Ligularia spp.
Common Names Leopard plant, ligularia, ragwort, goldenray, golden groundsel
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 3 to 4 feet tall; 2- to 3-foot spread
Sun Exposure Part shade to full shade
Soil Type Rich, medium-moisture to wet soil
Soil pH (6.0 to 7.5) Slightly acidic to slightly alkaline
Bloom Time Early to late summer (varies depending on climate)
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones 3 to 8 (USDA)
Native Area China, Japan

How to Grow Leopard Plant

Leopard plants do best in partial to full shade and in organically rich soil that stays moist. They do not do well in full sun or when exposed to strong winds. The more sunlight they receive, the more water they'll need. Before planting, mixing in some bone meal or peat moss to help retain moisture. When planting, bury the crowns at least 1/2 inch below soil level, and mulch around the plant to help keep the soil moist.

Aside from ensuring consistent moisture, these plants have minimal care requirements. Deadheading is unnecessary. When the plant goes dormant for the winter, cover over the crowns with 3 inches or so of mulch, pulling it back from the crowns as new growth begins.

Leopard plant has few serious pest or disease issues, but like other large-leaved plants, slugs and snails are attracted to the leaves.

Light

This is not a plant that bears much direct sun, which causes the leaves to wilt and the plant to languish. Like many large-leaved plants, it is an excellent choice for shady conditions.

Soil

Leopard plant requires a rich, humus-heavy soil that is consistently moist, even wet. It tolerates a range of pH levels, from slightly acid to slightly alkaline, though a neutral pH is preferred.

Water

These also are good wet-area plants; in fact, many growers state that these shade perennials get pretty thirsty, requiring a somewhat above-average amount of irrigation. Make sure leopard plants get a deep soaking at least once a week.

Temperature and Humidity

Most varieties of leopard plant are hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8, although this varies slightly by variety. They like relatively cool conditions and will do poorly or go dormant in very hot weather. It is common for these plants to wilt during the heat of the day, then recover in the evening.

Fertilizer

If planted in rich, humus-heavy soil, leopard plants don't require any feeding. The best fertilizer is a thick layer of organic mulch applied in the spring.

Propagating Ligularia

To propagate, you can lift and divide these perennials in early spring. Dig up the clumps and divide the crown into segments using a sharp knife, then replant.

Popular Varieties

  • Ligularia dentata 'Britt-Marie' is one of the more popular cultivars. It has large dark chocolate-colored leaves and blooms in mid to late summer. Growing 3 to 4 feet tall, it has better sun tolerance than most varieties.
  • L. dentata 'Desdemona' has dark yellow flowers and purplish-red leaves. It grows 2 to 3 feet tall and has deep green leaves.
  • Ligularia 'Osiris Café Noir' is a dwarf hybrid variety with leathery bronze leaves. It flowers in mid-to-late summer and grows about 20 inches tall.
  • Ligularia 'Othello' has large, mohogany-colore leaves and has bright gold flowers. It grows 30 to 42 inches tall.
  • Ligularia stenocephala 'The Rocket' is a very popular variety with deep green serrated foliage and long dark stems of bright yellow flowers. It is a large plant, growing 4 to 6 feet tall with a similar spread.

Landscape Uses

Although the flowers are interesting, many people grow Ligularias primarily as foliage plants. The cordate leaves can become rather large—about 9 inches long by 8 inches wide. More importantly, new leaves emerge in a very dark color of deep purple to black. The tops of the leaves may later turn green while the bottoms retain a hint of the earlier purplish color. This can happen well before blooming time so that the blooming period and peak foliage season do not coincide.

Ligularia's tolerance for (or, in hot climates, their need for) moist soils makes them logical candidates for plantings around water features. And as shade perennials, they are a good choice for woodland gardens. Leopard plants will attract butterflies but are, happily, deer-resistant perennials.

The plant texture for the popular 'Britt-Marie Crawford' cultivar is coarse, so to create contrast in your landscape design, you can juxtapose them to plants with fine, airy foliage, such as ferns. Since leopard plants are clump-formers, they can be planted en masse to function as edging plants in shady areas.