If you are thrilled when a hummingbird comes to your feeder, then you will be ecstatic when they come to the cuphea you have placed in the landscape. If you aren’t familiar with that name then you may know them as Mexican heather, firecracker flower and cigar plant.
The Mexican heather, known botanically as Cuphea hyssopifolia, has seen a few new varieties in recent years but none more beautiful than Limelight. In fact I don’t know why everyone hasn’t switched over to this variety. It boasts lime green or chartreuse foliage that is every bit as showy as a Joseph’s coats or Cuban Gold duranta but produces those glorious lavender flowersthat seem to be a favorite of the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly.
The Cuphea ignea gives reference to the Latin word for fire, hence common names like firecracker flower or firecracker plant. New breeding has changed things dramatically in the last few years giving us plants like Ballistic. Instead of red flowers this one loads up with dark lavender blossoms borne on a more compact plant with a good branching habit.
Another new selection is a Cuphea ignea hybrid called Vermillionaire, which is from Mexico and the Caribbean. This is a larger woody-like plant bearing hundreds of scarlet orange flowers for months. We have two of these in our Cottage Garden, and they are always being hit on by hummingbirds and butterflies.
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The Cuphea llaeva or Bat Faced cuphea is another choice hummingbird plant. In recent years Totally Tempted has hit the market, garnering awards across the country.
No hummingbird garden, however, would be worth its salt without the Cuphea micropetala. This is a large flower species reaching over three feet tall with much larger orange and yellow blossoms. Some refer to this as the Giant Cigar Plant. Get your camera ready to take pictures of the hummers on this one!
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.
In early summer, pinch growth as needed and more branching will follow. Feed in mid-summer and again in early fall with a light application of a balanced, slow-released fertilizer. These species are drought tolerant, but watering during prolonged dry periods will pay dividends come fall.
Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South.”