Leopard Plants

Grow Ligularia as a Shade Perennial

Leopard plant (image) is a shade perennial. I grow mine under a cherry tree.
Leopard plant likes shady conditions and moist soil. David Beaulieu

Leopard Plants in Botanical Nomenclature:

When establishing a plant's taxonomy, we use a genus name, a specific epithet and a cultivar name (if any). All of this precision is particularly important in cases where the common name(s) are confusing or not very descriptive.

Such is the case with the plant that I'll be dealing with in this article, which botanists know as Ligularia dentata. The cultivar that I focus on is 'Britt-Marie Crawford' (picture).

I have chosen to use the common name, "leopard plants" in this article, but that's not very descriptive, because not all types of Ligularia dentata have the spots on their leaves that have earned them this common moniker. The plants are also commonly called "goldenray," "ragwort" and "golden groundsel," but these labels are confusing, because they are sometimes applied as well to quite unrelated plants.

Plant Type:

Leopard plants are herbaceous perennials. They are in the aster family and native to Eurasia.

Characteristics of Leopard Plants:

Britt-Marie Crawford grows to a height of 2-3 feet with a spread slightly less than that. These leopard plants produce golden flowers in clusters (technically called "corymbs"). The first blooms arrive in my zone-5 garden in early August; so, in terms of sequence of bloom, they give me color for the second half of the summer. They are somewhat unusual-looking plants, due to the fact that the flowers emerge from rather curious bracts (picture).

Be that as it may, some people grow them as foliage plants, primarily. 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: deep purple to black. On my own Britt-Marie Crawford the tops of the leaves later turn green, with the bottoms retaining a hint of the earlier purplish color.

This happens well before blooming time, so their blooming period and their peak foliage season do not coincide, at least in my yard. Some growers report longer retention of the dark coloration (perhaps because they provide their plants with more sunlight).

Growing Zones:

Grow these leopard plants in growing zones 4-8.

Optimal Growing Conditions:

These can be treated as shade perennials. Add them to your list of shade plants if you're seeking to expand your perennial choices. The more sunlight they receive, the more water they'll need.

In terms of soil conditions, working some humus into the soil will help them. They 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. I have not found my own to be more dependent on irrigation than most plants (once it became established), but I should remind you that I do garden in the North and grow my leopard plants in shade.

Care for Leopard Plants:

Care requirements are minimal. For example, deadheading is unnecessary. Primarily, growers in warm climates will have to take care to supply their plants with sufficient water. I grow mine in a neglected nook of my landscaping, under a Kwanzan cherry tree, and it seems to thrive all on its own.

To propagate you can divide these perennials in early spring.

Uses in Landscaping:

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

Meanwhile, their tolerance for (or -- in hot climates -- even 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.

Wildlife Attracted (and Not Attracted) to Leopard Plants:

Leopard plants will attract butterflies but are, happily, deer-resistant perennials.

Meaning of the Botanical Name: What Ligularia Has to Do With a Decadent Emperor:

The root of Ligularia is the Latin lig-, which refers to binding.

In this case, the reference is to the petals, which reminded whoever named the plant of tiny straps that could be used in binding. The root appears in the name for the ancient Roman's footwear, the caliga, which was made with straps. The decadent emperor, Caligula wore a smaller version of this footwear when, as a child, he accompanied his father's troops -- and that's how he received his now infamous name, which translates as "Little Boots" (break it down into Ca-lig-ula and you can detect the root in question).

So much for the genus name in Ligularia dentata. But what about the specific epithet? Well, dentata means "toothed," coming from the Latin root for teeth, dent- (think "dentist"). In botany it usually refers (as here) to jagged leaf margins. Other examples are Castanea dentata (the American chestnut) and Dentaria diphylla, which carries the metaphor even into the common name: toothwort.

Speaking of toothwort, you may notice that one of leopard plant's other common names ends in the same suffix: namely, ragwort (not to be confused with ragweed). The -wort suffix was used in Old English for plant names, so when you see a common name ending in -wort, you know that you're looking at a term that goes way back. There are many examples, including St. Johnswort.

Other Types of Ligularia:

Ligularia dentata is sometimes referred to as the "bigleaf ligularia," because this type has relatively big leaves. But so does another type, Ligularia macrophylla; in fact, the specific epithet for the latter translates literally as "bigleaf."

Of other plants in the dentata species, the 'Desdemona' and 'Othello' cultivars may be most similar to 'Britt-Marie Crawford.'

Of the other types of leopard plant, Ligularia stenocephala 'The Rocket' may be the most popular. Its flower display is impressive, as the flowers appear in showy spikes. In fact, it is sometimes called "narrow-spiked ligularia." Ironically, the teeth along its leaf margins are more pronounced than on dentata (a name which, as noted above, specifically references "teeth").

Ligularia przewalskii also bears deeply-cut leaves.

Need more help for shady areas? Check out the following resources: