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Plant of the Week: Mexican Firebush

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

lant of the Week
Mexican Firebush
Latin: Hamelia patens

It has been a hot and dry summer. During prolonged periods of heat, one hears a lot of grumbling from gardeners, but our flowering garden plants also have their own way of letting us know they too are unhappy. Some just up and die while others stop blooming. Some though, like Mexican Firebush (Hamelia patens), like it hot.

Mexican firebush, also called hummingbird plant, is a tropical shrub native in tropical climes around the Gulf of Mexico, including Mexico, south Florida, parts of South and Central America and some Caribbean Islands. It belongs to the Madder family, making it kin to pentas, coffee and gardenia. In zones 9 and south it grows as a perennial, but mostly it is grown as a tropical annual, like lantana.

When grown as a perennial in warmer parts of the country, firebush grows 5 feet tall and wide, but in most situations, where it is grown as an annual bedding plant, it attains a height and spread of about 30 inches. Whereas the plant overwinters, it is slow to emerge in the spring, and blooming is delayed until the heat of summer arrives. When grown as an annual, it starts blooming soon after planting, with the number of flowers increasing as the season heats up.

Plants grow as a mounded plant with bright green, vinca-like leaves that are 2 to 3 inches long. Panicles of red, orange or yellow-red tubular blooms are produced at the ends of the stems. Individual flowers are narrow tubes to 1½ inches long with five small pointed petals flaring slightly at the end of the tube. In its native range, the plant produces an edible black berry, but this is not seen in gardens, probably because the plants we grow are all of a single clone and plants are self-incompatible.

Mexican firebush, one of about 40 species in the genus, has been in cultivation for over 100 years. Bailey, writing in his Cyclopedia of American Horticulture first published in 1900, says the plant will surely become a favorite landscape plant in Florida and will become a popular conservatory plant in the rest of the nation. But apparently it never became very popular, and was pretty much forgotten until about 1990 when Jerry Parsons, a Texas horticulturist, collected cuttings of one of only two plants that were in bloom in the west Texas town of Laredo in August. The plants now being grown in the nursery trade can be traced back to these Laredo plants.

Firebush grows in full sun or light shade in about any moderately well-drained soil. It will need to be watered to get the roots established, but once that happens it will tolerate considerable drought. But, like most plants, best bloom and growth are produced when some supplemental watering is provided during prolonged periods of drought. It is useful in the mixed border, in large container plantings or as a small, summer-flowering annual hedge. Cuttings can be made in the fall or the individual plants lifted and overwintered indoors. The plant is resistant to most serious disease and insect problems.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - September 24, 2010

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.