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Firebush perform in intense summers
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
The firebush, known as hummingbird bush and scarlet bush, is a Texas Superstar plant that would qualify in Mississippi as well. The Texas Superstar designation is similar to our Mississippi Medallion award.
The firebush, known botanically as Hamelia patens, has been readily available at garden centers throughout the state, but it is still rare for me to find it in someone's garden. Technically, it is a zone 9 to 10 plant, but I have seen it return many years in zone 8. Since it blooms from June through November, it is most worthy as an annual purchase.
The firebush is an evergreen shrub or small tree in many areas of tropical and subtropical America. It can be seen growing prolifically near magnificent stone pyramids in Veracruz and the Yucatan. In our area, it will most likely reach 24 to 36 inches in height.
After the past two summers, most gardens are looking for those plants that are as tough as a New Gold lantana and I am happy to say the firebush fits the bill. It is very heat and drought tolerant once established, and will grow in almost any soil that is well-drained.
The clean, attractive foliage of the firebush serves as the perfect complement to its bright scarlet, tubular flowers with deeper red throats. The flowers are produced continuously and never required deadheading. Hummingbirds and butterflies love the flowers, and birds eat any fruit that is formed. If this isn't enough to warrant buying the firebush, consider also that the foliage turns red in the fall.
Plant at least three for a nice show. Space plants 2 to 3 feet apart in fertile, well-drained soil in the full, scorching sun. Apply a good layer of mulch after planting. Feed every four to six weeks while growing with a slow-released, balanced fertilizer with minor nutrients. Occasionally prune lightly during the long growing season to produce a bushier plant. In the winter, an added layer of mulch just may help you have a spring return.
One of the most attractive displays I have seen was in Georgia. It combined firebush with Showstar melampodium, a Mississippi Medallion winner from a few years ago. This combination is just about as hardy and easy to grow as anyone could want.
Another awesome display was in Kosciusko where firebush was combined with purple Angelmist angelonias and white periwinkles. Try some in containers for the porch, patio, deck or pool. Fill your container with a loose, open potting mix, then add time-released fertilizer. Don't skimp on the soil -- get the best. Containerized plants can be over-wintered near a bright window inside the home and will be even larger next summer.
Every so often I see the yellow flowered variety African for sale. This plant looks particularly striking when grown with Purple Heart.
Regardless of the color you choose, when you buy a firebush you will get an outstanding plant that can take the intense summer sun, drought and humidity we are accustomed to in the South.