All summer firebush has bloomed showy terminal clusters (cymes) of reddish-orange flowers held on red stems and pedicels. Large (about six inches long) elliptic to oval leaves with red veins whorl around the stem.
In South Florida, the West Indies and Central and South America where it is native, firebush is a semi-woody evergreen shrub or small tree that is in bloom most of the time. In my Zone 8 garden it gets killed to the ground during the winter. Although it returns reliably in spring from the roots, it never reaches the stature of those in tropical areas. In USDA Zones 7 and colder, firebush is grown as an annual or in containers that can be moved to protected places during the winter.
Firebush loves the heat, and it thrives in full sun. In my garden it has been very low maintenance. After the first freeze, I cut the dead or blackened stems back to the ground and cover the crown with a fresh layer of pine needles. It is present in the garden from about April through October or November-or later if the frost holds off. For at least half a year, this plant is an attractive part of the garden.
Never has it required treatment for any kind of disease or insect. A bit of slow release fertilizer applied when new growth begins in the spring gets it off to a good start. Even though firebush is drought tolerant, it will benefit from a drink during periods of extreme drought. Propagate firebush by cuttings, seeds, or layering. New sprouts may also spring up from places where the roots were cut or from places where firebush was dug.
Hummingbirds and butterflies flock in when the firebush is blooming. The Florida Nursery Growers Association named it a "Florida Plant of the Year" in 1998. Birds are fond of the seedy fruits that are produced continuously during the summer months.
The dwarf version, Hamelia patens ‘Compacta' might be more suited to containers and small gardens. Nobody seems sure if this selection is really a cultivar of our native firebush or if it is a different variety. Golden tubular flowers are held on red stems. It tends to be showier than its larger cousin because of its smaller stature, its density and the compactness of the flower clusters. Growing 3 to 4 feet tall, dwarf firebush has leaves that are smooth as contrasted to the softly hairy leaves of the species. This seems to suggest that it is a cultivar of Hamelia patens var. glabra. The cultivar ‘Firefly' is also a smaller growing selection with leaves and flowers about half the size of regular firebush. 'Beyer's Variegated' is also available for those gardeners who want a different look.
Native plant experts distinguish between true native firebush and Hamelia patens var. glabra. If leaves are dull and hairy and flowers reddish-orange or mostly red, it is the true native. Conversely, if leaves are smooth and flowers are yellow to red-orange, it is most likely not native to Florida but is native to Central America. Some nurseries list this plant as Hamelia nodosa, and it is sometimes sold as African firebush since it was introduced to Florida from a nursery in Pretoria, South Africa. In southern Florida this firebush has begun to naturalize and possibly hybridize with native species, thereby posing a threat to the native species.
Because of its antibacterial and antifungal properties, extracts of the plant have been used to treat certain skin diseases, funguses, sores, and stings. Indigenous people in regions where the plant is native have used it to treat a wide range of maladies, such as menstrual cramps, dysentery, headache, and fever.
Most gardeners today, however, have different uses for firebush. Whether grown as an annual or hardy perennial, it is a low maintenance garden workhorse that remains a picture of health and beauty throughout the summer.
AT A GLANCE
Scientific name: Hamelia patens
Common names: Firebush, Mexican firebush, firecracker shrub, scarlet bush
Pronunciation: ham-EE-lee-uh PAT-ens
Hardiness: USDA Zones 8-11
Salt tolerance: Moderate
Family: Rubiaceae (Madder)
Size: 8-12 ft. tall/8-12 ft. wide (less in areas where it dies down in winter)
Origin: Mexico, South Florida, the West Indies, and Central and South America
Propagation: Softwood cuttings in spring; fresh seeds