Firebush is a brilliant evergreen shrub for USDA zones 9 to 11 that pollinators just can’t get enough of. These low-maintenance plants are fast-growing and make great screens and backgrounds.
Read on to learn more about how to grow and care for the firebush.
What Is A Firebush?
The firebush, Hamelia patens is also known as the Mexican firebush, scarlet bush, hummingbird bush, firecracker bush, or redhead. These shrubs of the Rubiaceae family occur from Florida, south through Central America, and to Argentina.
In the warm, subtropical areas they prefer, these somewhat woody, rounded shrubs will remain evergreen, although they are fast-growing and can be grown as an annual in cooler areas. In the south, these rounded shrubs can grow to over 12 feet (3.6 m) tall with a spread of 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 m). They will reach a maximum of less than half that size in areas colder than zone 8 or 9.
You may find a few different varieties of this plant available from nurseries. The variety H. p var. patens is native to Florida. A non-native variety, H. p. var. glabra is also found in the nursery trade and has lighter colored flowers and smooth leaves without hairs.
H. p. var. glabra is often sold as a ‘dwarf’ or ‘compacta’ firebush. While these plants are shorter than the native variety and can be kept relatively small, they can reach over 8 feet (2.4 m) if left unpruned.
The simple leaves of the firebush are between 2 and 8 inches (5 to 20 cm) long. They are interesting leaves that occur in whorls of 3 or 4 (up to 7) and are often covered in fine red hairs when young (1). Mature foliage is attractively marked with red or purple speckling.
The firebush produces tubular orange to red flowers almost throughout the year. When grown as an annual, these plants will blossom from about midsummer until flowering is put on hold by the first frost.
The flowers are five-lobed and grow from ½ inch to 1 inch (13 to 25 mm) long and about ⅛ inch (3 mm) across. Since the firebush blooms for so much of the year, these plants produce a practically continuous crop of small dark red to black fruits that are edible.
How To Grow A Firebush Plant
Firebush plants can be grown from fresh seed or softwood stem cuttings. The plants are fast-growing, easily increasing in height by 3 or 4 feet (0.9 to 1.2 m) in a single growing season.
These shrubs can be grown in a variety of well-drained soil types. They are drought and heat-resistant but should be sheltered from strong winds if possible.
Water these plants regularly, especially after planting and until the plant is established and producing new growth. They should be grown in full sun to promote the best flowering, although they will also survive in partial shade.
Ideally, these plants should be grown in USDA zones 9 to 11, although it is possible to grow them as an annual in colder climates or in pots to be overwintered indoors.
Care and Maintenance
These plants have low maintenance needs and don’t really need to be pruned unless you’re trying to control their size.
Provided you’re growing this shrub in a large enough space and allowing it to take its natural growth form, a light pruning for neatness is all that may be necessary.
For those with limited space, it is possible to train these plants as a small, single or multi-stemmed tree, which will limit the plant’s spread. Remember, of course, the size differs between plants grown in warm, sub-tropical regions and colder zones.
Fertilizing isn’t really necessary when growing the firebush, but applying a layer of coarse compost as mulch will have a number of benefits including improving moisture retention in the soil, suppressing weeds, and providing additional nutrients. Remember to keep the crown clear of mulch to prevent rot.
These plants are generally very pest and disease resistant, particularly if grown in their native range. They may be susceptible to some insect pests like scales, mites, aphids, and caterpillars.
Firebush makes a great foundation plant or can be used as a background to a border, or as a screen. These plants can even be grown as an informal hedge, and they also make a neat small specimen tree for the more hands-on gardener.
One of the great benefits of these plants is the number of pollinators they attract, which makes this a great option for wildlife and pollinator gardens.
These plants are known to have medicinal uses for treating many conditions such as pain, fever, insect bites, and burns. (2) The berries of this plant are edible raw but will taste better when made into jams and jellies.
Hummingbirds, butterflies, and moths are all attracted to the nectar-rich flowers of the firebush shrub. Fruit-eating birds like mockingbirds relish the tasty small fruits. These plants are generally deer resistant.
The firebush is an excellent low-maintenance plant that looks great and supports local wildlife. One of its best qualities is its tolerance for high temperatures, which means this plant will thrive where others just can’t handle the heat. If you live in zones 9 to 11, this is definitely an evergreen shrub worth planting.
Want to learn more about other shrubs you can grow? Check our list here: https://florgeous.com/types-of-shrubs/
(1) Welch, W. C. Horticulture Update: Hamelia (Hamelia Patens). Retrieved at https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/newsletters/hortupdate/2009/jun09/Hamelia.html
(2) Dion, B. Hamelia Patens: FGCU Food Forest. Retrieved at https://www.fgcu.edu/cas/communityimpact/foodforest/files/Firebush-ADA.pdf
*image by shahla_bluerich/depositphotos