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Cigars and mouse ears are perfect in gardens
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
The popularity of Mexican Heather exploded in the 1980s, and this plant, also known as false heather, is still an excellent choice. Other species and varieties from Mexico are tough, good looking and unique enough to possibly interest your children or grandchildren in gardening.
The first species that comes to mind is the bat-faced cuphea, or Cuphea llavea. Summer's heat will not stop these unique flowers that look like bat faces with scarlet red petals and little, purple mouse ears. The stems become slightly woody, arching and weather-tough. These are low maintenance, drought-tolerant, heat-loving plants.
The other species is the cigar plant, Cuphea micropetala. With these plants in the garden, we can teach the kids about Mickey Mouse or smoking cigars.
Actually, I think the cigar plant is more like a firecracker. It loads up with large, 2-inch flowers in an exotic combination of reddish-orange, yellow and green. They are a delight to the darting ruby-throated hummingbird. Heat and humidity don't even pause its vigorous growth.
The No. 1 reason thousands more gardeners don't enjoy these plants is instant gratification. Most often cupheas are hardly blooming when they're for sale, though the foliage is a textural asset in the garden. Gardeners unfamiliar with these plants choose something else with more blooms showing. If you do try them, I predict you will get hooked.
Regardless of which cuphea you choose, select a site in full sun and plant in well-drained soil. Set out plants 12 to 24 inches apart, planting at the same depth they are growing in the container. Apply a good layer of mulch, water to get established and then enjoy.
Your children or grandchildren will love looking at flowers that remind them of Mickey Mouse or firecrackers.
Nothing but being patient is hard about growing these plants. The reward starts by mid summer and by fall, your friends and neighbors will be jealous.
In early summer, pinch growth off a bit and more branching will follow. Feed in mid summer and again in early fall with a light application of a balanced, slow-released fertilizer. Both varieties are drought tolerant, but watering during long dry periods will pay dividends come fall.
Remember the bat faced cuphea can grow 2 feet tall and the cigar or firecracker cuphea can reach 3 to 5 feet tall. Plant where the kids can see them and watch the hummingbirds feed.
Use them informally in the garden rather than lined up like soldiers. They work well with zinnias and firebush, or planted in front of cannas and upright-type elephant ears.
The bat-faced cuphea mostly is sold generically, but Georgia Scarlet and Tiny Mice are well known selections. The cigar plant is sold generically, but there are several named varieties of its much smaller cousin C. ignea, often called cigarette plant.
If you like the Mexican Heather, you will like the other cupheas, too.