Few plants really thrive in our Texas heat from July to September but Hamelia patens (sometimes listed as H. erecta) seems to thrive on it. Actually a large shrub or small tree native to Mexico, firebush is a dependable and useful perennial for the southern half of Texas where it freezes to the ground and resprouts each spring. It typically makes a 4- to 5-foot mound of reddish orange flowers from early summer until late fall.
In addition to its long blooming season, there are several other significant attributes of the plant. Hamelia is very drought tolerant and thrives in most any soil as long as it is well-drained. Full sun or partially shaded locations are preferable to shady ones which will result in rank growth and little bloom. The foliage often turns bright red before freezing back and the small, dark fruit is edible. In Mexico, a fermented drink is said to be made from the fruit. The leaves and stems have been used for tanning an a concoction reportedly is used for various medicinal purposes.
The flower buds last longer than the flowers themselves and appear in great numbers. After maturing, the flowers drop off quickly and the plant requires only occasional shearing to keep it in a nearly perpetual state of bloom.
Another common name for H. patens is hummingbird bush. Hummingbirds are attracted to the tubular red flowers and add another value to the plant.
H. patens is certainly not a “new” plant for Texans, but has become more widespread in recent years. It is also said to be fairly common in Florida.
Propagation is by seed or half-ripe cuttings rooted under glass. Firebush is useful as a container plant in masses or located at the back of wide border plantings. It is useful as an annual in northern parts of the state where more severe winters may kill the root system of the plant.