If you are thrilled when a hummingbird comes to your feeder, then you will be ecstatic when they come to the plants you have placed in the landscape. Though much of the country has the first cold front of the year in the forecast, hummingbirds are still feeding, and one group of flowers standing out is the cuphea. 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 flowers all season that 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. You will also love the fact that Ballistic blooms all growing season.
Another new selection is a Cuphea ignea hybrid called Vermillionaire. 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 ignea is from Mexico and the Caribbean, where it takes on an evergreen shrub-like habit. In zones 8 and 9 it will get knocked to the ground by freezes but normally returns faithfully in the spring provided it doesn’t sit in water during the cold winter. It is certainly worthy of being planted as an annual next year much like you would a petunia.
The Cuphea llaeva or Bat Faced cuphea is another choice hummingbird plant. In recent years Totally Tempted has hit the market, garnering two pages of awards across the country including the “Knock Your Socks Off” in the University of Georgia Trials. My favorite award name however is “Best Friend Forever” at Virginia Tech Trials. But you get the picture — this is one fine plant. Most of the bat faced cupheas reach close to 24 inches in height with Totally Tempted topping out at 12 to 14 inches.
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. It, too, will return from winter temperatures of around 10 degrees if you use good mulch. 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.
Use them informally in the garden rather than lined up like soldiers. They work well with other hummingbird plants like the firebush or planted in partnership with Chapel Hill yellow lantana and Gold Star esperanza . In most places in the U.S., the hot weather is still here, and cupheas would make a fine addition to your garden!
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” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.” Follow him at: @CGBGgardenguru.