Many gardeners have learned the value of Cuphea for summer long flowers. We value them not only for the small, attractive flowers, but also for the hummingbirds, butterflies, and nectar-feeding insects that swarm around them.
Cuphea is a family of plants containing about 115 species according to the GRIN website. Members of the Lythraceae or loosestrife family, these woody subshrubs hail mostly from tropical regions of Central America and Mexico; however, some are native to North America.
As a group, they freeze to the ground in winter in my Zone 8 garden. Every spring most of them return reliably. Most species begin blooming almost as soon as they emerge from their winter dormancy. Others, however, initiate flowers during the short days of autumn.
In frost-free climates, Cuphea is evergreen and blooms most of the year. In Zones 7 and northward, these plants are often grown as summer annuals. In this role, they bloom from the time they are placed in the garden until frost kills them come winter.
Several species are popular garden plants. Below are details about some of the most commonly grown species.
Flower: red, purple, black, reminiscent of a tiny purple bat's face with red ears; blooms spring through fall
Size: 18 - 24 inches tall and wide
Hardiness: USDA Zone 8; treat as annual in lower zones
Culture: Grow in full sun or filtered sun in containers or in the ground. Drought tolerant but best with regular watering.
Comments: Several cultivars are available, such as ‘Tiny Mice', ‘Torpedo', and ‘Totally Tempted' (thumbnail picture). The Flamenco® series (hybrids of Cuphea llavea and the C. procumbens) includes ‘Flamenco Cha Cha' (flowers uniform fuchsia-purple), ‘Flamenco Rumba' (bright, lighter red flowers with purple faces), ‘Flamenco Samba' (burgundy flowers with a deep purple-colored face), and ‘Flamenco Tango' (hot pink or vivid red flowers with lavender faces). Floraplant, S.A. de C.V. of Mexico offers the Vienco® series that features open, showier flowers. Cultivars include ‘Vienco Burgundy', ‘Vienco Lavender', Vienco Purple Pink', ‘Vienco Purple Red', ‘Vienco Red', ‘Vienco Salmon Purple', and ‘Vienco White'.
Flower: bright red, tubular, about 1.25 inches long; bloom singly in leaf axils; each has a narrow, tubular, red calyx; at the tip of the flower is a narrow white rim and two tiny purple-black petals; resembles a lit cigar or cigarette
Size: 20-30 inches tall and wide
Hardiness: USDA Zones 10-12
Culture: prefers bright sun but tolerant of some shade, likes moisture, tolerant of short dry spells, easy from seeds or stem tip cuttings
Comments: Cultivars available include ‘David Verity' and the Matchmaker® series, ‘Matchmaker White', 'Matchmaker Scarlet', and ‘Matchmaker Pink'.
Scientific name:Cuphea hyssopifolia
Common names:Mexican false heather, false heather, Hawaiian heather, elfin herb
Say: KOO-fee-ah his-sop-ih-FOH-lee-uh
Flower: small, trumpet-shaped flowers with six spreading lavender petals produced in leaf axils; flowers sometimes white, pink, or deep rose
Size: 12 to 24 inches tall and wide
Hardiness: USDA Zones 9-11
Culture: full sun to part sun; foliage color best in part shade; moist soil but tolerant of short dry spells
Comments: Cultivars include 'Allyson', 'Lavender Lace', 'Limelight', and 'Alba'. May self-sow in warm areas; easily grown from seed; frequently used as evergreen groundcover in areas where it is hardy.
Scientificname: Cuphea micropetala
Commonnames: candy corn plant, giant cigar plant
Say:. KOO-fee-ah my-kro-PET-uh-luh
Flower: tubular, 1.5 inch-long blossoms borne on upper one foot of each stem; flowers open bright yellow but gradually turn orange-red
Size: 3 to 4 feet tall and wide
Hardiness: USDA 7b and warmer
Culture: site in mostly full sun; some protection from hot mid-day sun beneficial
Comments: The largest growing of the commonly planted Cupheas, this plant has red stems clothed with narrow leaves. Flowers are produced in the shorter days of fall since it is short day flowering.
Scientific name:Cuphea varia
Common names: Mexican heather
Say: KOO-fee-ah VAR-ee-uh
Flower: delicate pink and white blooms; fine textured, gray-toned foliage
Size: 12 to 14 inches tall and wide
Hardiness: USDA Zones 10-11
Culture: full sun; moderate moisture, well-drained soil
Comments: ‘Susan's Little Gem'
Scientific name:Cuphea cyanea
Common names: black-eyed Cuphea, pink cigar plant
Say: KOO-fee-ah sy-AN-ee-uh
Flower: bright orange with yellow faces and purple ears; darn green foliage on red stems
Size: 18-24 inches tall
Hardiness: USDA Zones 10-11; annual in most climates
Culture: full sun to light shade in well-drained soil, very heat tolerant; brittle stems - plant away from pedestrian traffic; drought tolerant but best with regular watering
Comments: Cultivars include: 'Caribbean Sunset', 'Copper Cricket', 'Pink Mouse'
Of interest to farmers is Cuphea viscosissima (clammy Cuphea, blue waxweed, tarweed). A native hardy from Zones 4-8, this plant can be found in most of the eastern half of the United States and Canada. An interspecific hybrid of this species and Cuphea lanceolata is of interest to farmers. The seeds of these plants are a possible source of medium-chain triglycerides that are currently supplied by coconut oil and palm oil. A few problems remain to be solved, such as the tendency of the seedpods to shatter, indeterminate flowering, and overall stickiness, all of which affect production and harvesting of the seeds.
Cupheas are an important part of low-maintenance, carefree gardens, because they seldom are bothered by pests or diseases if planted in full to partial sun in well-drained garden soil. Whichever species you decide to grow, plan to sit back and enjoy the summer-long display of flowers as well as the hummingbirds, butterflies, and nectaring insects that they attract.
About Marie Harrison
Serving as a board member for Valparaiso Garden Club, the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and the Deep South Region, and National Garden Clubs takes a chunk of my time and attention. Being a Master Flower Show Judge, a Floral Design Instructor, instructor of horticulture for National Garden Clubs, and a University of Florida Master Gardener crowds a bit more into my busy days. In addition to these activities, I contribute regularly to Florida Gardening magazine and other publications. I am author of four gardening books, all published by Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida. Read about them and visit me at www.mariesgardenanddesign.com.