174 Hamelia patensCommon Names: firebush, scarlet bush, hummingbird bush Family: Rubiaceae (madder Family)
Firebush is a showy, fast-growing, semi-woody evergreen shrub that can get up to 15 ft (4.6 m) tall under ideal conditions, but usually stays much smaller. It has whorled leaves, usually with three but occasionally as many as seven at each node. The leaves are elliptic to oval, about 6 in (15 cm) long, and gray-pubescent underneath with reddish veins and petioles. They are reflexed upward from the midvein. Throughout the year, firebush produces showy terminal clusters (cymes) of bright reddish-orange or scarlet tubular flowers, each about 0.75 in (1.9 cm), long. Even the flower stems are red. The clusters of fruit also are showy. Each fruit is a juicy berry with many small seeds, ripening from green to yellow to red and finally to black. A firebush plant usually has flowers and fruit in various stages.
In temperate climates, firebush is grown as an annual. Under these conditions, it gets only about 2 ft (0.6 m) tall, and in autumn the leaves turn deep red.
Firebush, Hamelia patens, is native to central and southern Florida (from Marion County southward) and the West Indies, Central America and South America to Paraguay and Bolivia. It grows on shell mounds, in hammocks and in open, disturbed sites.
CultureLight: Does best in full sun but quite well in partial shade. It becomes leggy in shade. Moisture: Once established, firebush is drought tolerant, but it does best with frequent watering as long as the soil has excellent drainage. Water weekly during the first year after transplanting. Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 11. Firebush is like coral bean: it is a semi-woody shrub or small tree in zones 10-11, and a perennial that dies to the ground in winter and sprouts back in spring in zones 8-9. Firebush also is grown as an annual or a potted plant in colder zones. Propagation: Propagate by soft wood cuttings in spring or by seed.
In zones 9-11 firebush is used in hedges, in mixed borders with other small shrubs, and as a stand-alone shrub. It can be kept small by pruning. Firebush is a valuable addition to butterfly and hummingbird gardens, and in south Florida is often planted in wildlife gardens with other native shrubs such as American beautyberry, coral bean and wild coffee. Firebush is salt tolerant and will grow in any kind of soil as long as it is well drained.
Where grown as an annual, firebush is best in mass plantings and borders, and is especially attractive with white-flowered annuals. Firebush also does well in containers where it can be placed on a patio in summer and brought inside to a sunny location during the winter.
Firebush does not have a dormant period; it grows continuously, flowers almost continuously, and the wood lacks growth rings.
Indigenous people in tropical America use extracts of the leaves and stems to treat all kinds of skin diseases including rashes, skin fungus, sores and insect stings. Modern researchers have found that extracts of firebush contain several active phytochemicals which have antibacterial and antifungal properties. Other ethnobotanical uses include treatment for menstrual cramps, headache, rheumatism, fever, and dysentery. Effective immunostimulants have been identified in firebush extracts and studies with rats have shown that firebush has analgesic, diuretic and hypothermic activities.
The berries are relished by birds.
Steve Christman 10/04/99; updated 9/5/03, 11/13/03