Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Firebush, Hamelia patens

By Peg Lindsay

Something unusual has been happening in our garden this summer. All summer long we’ve had a hummingbird visitor in our garden. The rangemaps for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds show central Florida as the southern limit of its breeding range. So, while our area is within the summer range, most of the birds of this species nest further north and we see them only in migration (spring and fall).

Juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird nectaring on firebush
What brings this little visitor to our garden are the abundance and varieties of nectar-producing Florida-native wildflowers we have added to our landscape. The hummer’s favorites:
   - Lonicera sempervirens, coral honeysuckle (a vine)
   - Salvia coccinea, tropical sage (a self-seeding annual)
   - Hamelia patens, firebush (a shrub)
The first year that we had a hummingbird visitor, I quickly put out the hummingbird feeder. The birdie sipped once and then went back to the firebush, never to return to the feeder. So my husband planted about six more firebush shrubs in our yard. We’ve added them as foundation plantings around our house.

I checked several websites and could not find the origin of the common name “firebush”. It probably either refers to the color of the blooms or to the fact that it regenerates quickly from its rootstock after a fire.

Firebush berries; photo by Shirley Denton
Firebush is one of the most beautiful Florida native shrubs I know. There is wide genetic diversity in this species, with leaves ranging from a yellow-green to deep green, both sparse and dense leaves and flowers. It begins blooming in late spring and continues until the first hard freeze. If winter temps remain mild, it will bloom and retain its foliage year-round. The deep, tubular, yellow-to-orange flowers attract a wide variety of butterflies and bees.

Another bonus are the fruits this shrub produces. I’ve watched Cardinals and Mockingbirds dive into the shrubbery and emerge with a beakful of berries. Wikipedia claims the berries are edible by humans but I haven’t tried them (yet).

Firebush - an outstanding Florida native;
photo by Roger Hammer
According to several internet sources, this shrub grows well in a variety of soils, from acidic to alkaline, sand to limestone to humus. It’s extremely drought-tolerant and will grow in both sun and shade, although in the sun it will bloom profusely.

The only negative property this shrub exhibits is intolerance of freezing temperatures (can you blame it?),
which cause it to die back to its rootstock. I don’t know if covering the shrubs would potentially prevent this loss, as I’ve always allowed our shrubs to freeze back. I prune the dead limbs after the last of the winter cold weather and then marvel at how quickly these lovely natives regain their former splendor.

Interested in adding firebush to your landscape?  Check out http://plantrealflorida.org/plants/detail/hamelia-patens for a nursery near you!

---
Posted and edited by Laurie Sheldon

2 comments:

Roger Agness said...

I've got a great Hamelia patens here in Orlando... but no butterflies. Can you please send me some of yours? They are ignoring my "BUTTERFLIES stop here!" sign. :(

The Jolly Bloggers said...

Aww. Sorry to hear that! I'll tell them to brush up on their reading! ;)