A Star is Born

Texas summers are infamous, and rightly so, for the terrific stress they place on blooming plants in the landscape. Their twin trip–hammer blows of searing heat and prolonged drought make most bedding plants cry “uncle” by the 4th of July. But firebush, a new bedding plant for the north central Texas area, offers real hope to heat–hammered summer landscapes, particularly in view of the recurring fungal disease problems evident in many periwinkle plantings.

Firebush (scientific name: Hamelia patens) is an evergreen shrub or small tree native to many areas in tropical and subtropical America. It can be seen growing prolifically near magnificent stone pyramids in Veracruz and Yucatan and is prized by the natives for its beauty and many medicinal uses.

Its Advantages Are Many

Extensive testing by Texas Extension Service horticulturists has established that firebush offers many advantages to Texas gardeners. This plant:

  1. Is very heat and drought tolerant once established
  2. Will grow in almost any soil, even highly alkaline, heavy clays, as long as they are well drained
  3. Has no serious insect or disease problems when grown outdoors in full sun locations (so it’s easy to grow “organically”)
  4. Has a very long blooming period (nonstop from June to November)
  5. Is adaptable enough to tolerate partial shade even though it really “struts–its–stuff” in full, hot sun

Although a woody perennial in its native habitat, firebush is best utilized as an annual (mature height: 18–30 inches) from central Texas northward.

The clean, attractive foliage of firebush is dramatically highlighted by terminal clusters of scarlet red, tubular blossoms with deeper red throats. The striking blossoms (which do not require removal as they fade) are natural attractants for hummingbirds and butterflies. In fact, another common name for firebush is “Hummingbird Bush” and it’s sometimes difficult to get a photograph of firebush blooms without being buzzed by a hummer! The attributes of firebush just seem to keep on coming because shorter days and cool temperatures turn its foliage a beautiful blood red color in the fall.

Firebush Culture At A Glance

  • Can begin setting transplants into the home landscape in mid–May and continue planting into the summer months.
  • Plant in full sun (i.e. at least 8–10 hours per day). Eastern, southern or western exposures are usually suitable.
  • Must have good soil drainage. To achieve this, incorporate 4–6 inches of organic material (compost, hay, straw, peat moss, etc.) and plant on raised beds.
  • Fertilizer requirements: While tilling in the organic material, also incorporate fertilizer based on results of a soil test. If test results are not available, apply 1–2 pounds of a complete balanced fertilizer (such as 8–8–8 or 12–12–12) per 100 square feet of bed area. To keep plant performance at a maximum, sidedress monthly with a soluble nitrogen fertilizer.
  • Space transplants 1 foot apart. Mulch entire bed after planting to reduce water consumption and weed competition.
  • Water in thoroughly at planting. Thereafter, water only when top inch of soil is dry (check with your finger every 7–10 days). Firebush can be killed by watering too frequently. For example, every other day is too often!
  • An occasional light shearing encourages almost constant blooming as well as a denser plant with closely spaced bloom clusters.

Landscape Uses

  • Works well in a massed planting at the back of a bed which borders a fence or down the midrib of a peninsular bed which extends into the yard.
  • Low–growing annuals, especially those with white blossoms (such as white ‘Carpet’ petunias) make a very dramatic contrast planted in front of firebush.
  • Does extremely well in containers. Ensure adequate number of drain holes, fill with loose, open potting mix, then add slow–release fertilizer. Place container in full sun.
  • Firebush in containers on the patio combined with mass planting in accent corner of backyard adds continuity and sophistication to your summer landscape.
  • Containerized plants can be overwintered near a bright window inside the home and will be even larger next summer at which time they can be pruned into gorgeous miniature trees.