And in one corner, hard up against the chain-link fence, a huge, rangy plant with brilliant, shaggy orange flowers twists and bursts out, its exuberant energy barely contained. It's like a fierce muscled animal in a cage - a lion, if you will.
This is Leonotis leonurus, also called Lion's Ear or Lion's Tail. It's a member of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, and native to South Africa.
You can always tell a member of the mint family when you see it, because the stems of the plant are square-shaped. This is something I learned as a child, and always remember.
Many mints also have flower structures like the Leonotis, where clusters of tubular flowers range up each stem. The emerging flowers are like bright orange puffs swelling from the grey-green sepals.
Mints are rich in aromatic oils, and because of this people have used them for healing wherever they grow. The Lion's Ear plant has been used in teas and infusions to treat respiratory ailments, and also as an external remedy for skin diseases and itching.
In South Africa, the plant was used by the native Xhosa people as a mild intoxicant, smoked through a water pipe. It's often called Wild Dagga, and is used in shamanistic rituals - you can find dried leonotis blossoms sold on the internet for this purpose.
Leonotis is attractive to bees and butterflies - and, here in Southern California, hummingbirds - and it's also drought tolerant, so it's good for water-wise gardening.
I like the idea of a wild lion bristling fiercely orange behind the fence as I walk past. I always think of Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso's song, "Leozinho," or "Little Lion."
A rough translation of the lyrics:
Walking under the sun
I really like you little lion
To unsadden, little lion
My lonely heart
It’s enough to meet you on my path
A little lion, morning ray
Attracting my gaze like a magnet
My heart is the sun, father of all colors
When it tans your naked skin
I like to watch you under the sun, little lion
To watch you getting into the sea
Your skin, your light, your mane
I like to stay under the sun, little lion
To wet my mane,
Be close to you and get into the sea.
UPDATE: I've noticed that when I embed a YouTube video, sometimes the comments link doesn't show at the end of the post. This seems to be a Blogger glitch. If you'd like to comment, and you don't see the link, doubleclick on the title to this post "Little Lions" - you should see the comment link at the bottom of the post. I welcome all your comments.