Firebush (Coffee family)

Hamelia patens (Rubiaceae)

Origin: Tropical and subtropical Americas

Butterfly gardens are getting more and more popular these days; there is something very special about watching colorful insects flutter around the garden. One of the best plant choices to attract butterflies and hummingbirds in Florida is Hamelia patens, the native firebush. It is sensitive to frost, Central Florida being the northernmost edge of its range, but in areas where the ground doesn’t freeze Hamelia will come back every spring. It is totally adapted to a number of harsh conditions including full shade, full blazing sun, drought, flood, and nutrient-poor soil. Firebush are capable of growing quite quickly as long as they are watered, and make an excellent choice for a privacy screen as well as a specimen in any garden.

Hamelias are in the same family as the coffees and gardenias, but their flowers look unfamiliar. Rather than star-shaped and white, Hamelia flowers are long and tubular, with very small petals at the end of an extended and prominent corolla tube, which is the basic flower form hummingbirds prefer. A firebush under stress for some reason, either cold, sun, or drought, will oftentimes display a striking red coloration on the foliage as well; the typical green leaves with red veins become much more burgundy, which when combined with the almost-black cascading fruits provides a beautiful range of color.

There are two species of Hamelias commonly sold at nurseries in Southern Florida, “dwarf firebush,” Hamelia nodosa, is native to Mexico and has dramatically shortened internodes, meaning that although the plant still becomes quite tall, it grows back “tighter” after pruning and therefore responds well to shearing. Hamelia nodosa is a little less adapted to our Sarasota climate, however, and doesn’t do as well in shaded conditions or overly wet conditions as does H. patens. Here at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens we have both species as well as a few hybrids and varieties planted around the grounds. To do a comparison of the two species, head on down to our Wildflower Garden, where you can see one of each planted on either side of the sidewalk.

Text by David Troxell