It's not hard to understand why firebush, Hamelia patens, ranks among the most popular of Florida natives to be used in landscaping. Its beauty is undeniable and those fire-red tubular flowers are like magnets for butterfiles and hummingbirds. It also grows rapidly and can withstand the assaults of a variety of pests.
But there is one threat at the genetic level that could pose a particular problem for firebush: a non-native cousin that is commonly sold in big box stores and that regularly hybridizes with our guy. It's a variety of firebush native to South America and labeled African firebush or dwarf firebush.
Some native firebush basics. It grows in the wild only in Florida among the 50 states. It is a shrub or small tree that can be about 12 feet tall, 15 feet if it has some kind of support, such as a trellis. It will have a spread as wide as it is tall. It is sensitive to cold, limiting how far north it can grow in the wild. In Florida, the northern limit is Sumter County. Firebush is also found throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America.
Firebush grows extremely rapidly. A foot tall specimen planted in the spring will grow to five feet by winter. In the northern reaches of its range, it will die back to the ground if it freezes, but will regrow rapidly when warmer weather returns. In places farther north, it's used as an annual, which gives you some idea of how fast it grows.
Leaves are elliptical, about two to four inches long, grow opposite each other or in whorls of three and have a red tinge to them. The flowers occur in clusters at the end of branches. They are tubular, an inch to an inch-and-a-half long, mostly red with some orange. The flowers give way to clusters of small berries that turn from green to red to deep blue-black when ripe. And yes, they are edible.
Habitats include natural openings in wooded areas and the edges of hammocks particularly in coastal areas. It will grow in part shade or full shade. In Florida, despite firebush's fairly wide distribution, it isn't all that common in the wild. The long, red-orange, tubular flowers, make firebush a wildlife magnet. Butterflies, including the startira sulphur, shown in the photo above, and black swallowtail, use it as a source of nectar, as do hummingbirds. One moth, the Pluto sphinx, uses it as a host for its larvae. Mockingbirds, catbirds and vireos come for the berries. It's such a favorite with hummingbirds that some call it hummingbird bush.
As we said, firebush is among the most popular of Florida natives to be used in landscaping. But as we noted there is an imposter being sold on the market, sometimes sold as dwarf or African firebush. The native variety is Hamelia patens var. patens. The imposter is Hamelia patens var. glabra. The fear is that the non-native variety will escape into the wild and hybridize with the native and weaken the genetic diversity of the species. Native firebush has flowers that are predominantly red to orange-red, while non-natives are yellow-red. The leaves of native firebush are often tinged red and covered with fine, flat hairs; non-natives are not.
Other common names include firecracker, Mexican firecracker, Texas firebush, and scarletbush. Firebush is a member of Rubiaceae, the madder family, which includes coffees.