UF/IFAS Okeechobee County Extension Service

458 Highway 98 North

Okeechobee, FL 34972-2578

Phone: (863) 763-6469

E- mail:  dfculbert@ifas.ufl.edu

March 21, 2007

Quick Links: Adaptation  Landscape Use   Native vs. Nonnative   References

Feature Article - for release the week of March 25, 2007

Dan Culbert - Extension Horticulture Agent

Fired up Natives and Near-natives

Have you recovered from the first-ever Okeechobee County Fair yet?  Our office is back at it, and our FYN Program Assistant was recently asked to make presentations on native plants and improving wildlife. While helping Angela Sachson prepare for her presentations, I uncovered some concerns about a popular native shrub.

Our native Firebush may be confused with a non-native version commonly found in nurseries. Today’s column will describe the positive features of this Florida Friendly flowering shrub, give details on how to tell the difference and offer some reasons why we should care about which is which. 

Firebush is a popular native plant that attracts our state butterfly, the Zebra Longwing.  Photo: Vic Ramey, UF/IFAS  Clusters of tubular flowers give rise to rounded berries, popular with songbirds. Photo: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS 

Tropical Flowering Beauty

Picture a low maintenance shrub that is adapted to local Florida soils and climate, produces lots of flowers for butterflies and hummingbirds, and sets lots of berries to keep the song birds interested. You will have an idea of why Firebush is a popular addition to many Florida Yards.

Purists insist that I call it by its “correct” botanical name, Hamelia patens.  In the nursery it may be labeled as Scarlet Bush, Hummingbird Bush, African Fire Bush, Mexican Fire Bush, and a host of other names in Latin America.  It is a member of the Madder plant family that includes Gardenia, Penta, and Wild Coffee.

The true Firebush is a native to coastal hammocks of Central and South Florida and some surrounding parts of the Caribbean basin.  It grows more flowers and produces a mounded shape when grown in full sun. But it will tolerate some shade and is equally attractive with a more open, leggy habit. 

The concern inland is that Firebush is a bit sensitive to cold temperatures.  Once established it can easily return from a frost.   Multiple leaves grow from a single stem node, and both the new growth and foliage touched by cooler temperatures will be scarlet red in color.

In full sun and hot conditions, Firebush produces a rounded shape. Photo: Dave Creech, SFASU New growth of Firebush is red. Photo: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS   Foliage of Firebush also turns scarlet in colder temperatures. Photo: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

A Magnet for Butterflies and Birds

Hummingbirds and butterflies enjoy the nectar in the clusters of tubular flowers. The small rounded red to black glossy fruit is a result of many visits by hummingbirds, moths and butterflies. There is a continuous crop of these seedy fruits, and birds like cardinals are quite fond of them.

Firebush is used as a foundation plant for large buildings – give it five feet from a wall.  It is superb when placed in the background, behind smaller shrubs.  A mass planting of firebushes adds a bank of color to the landscape and rows of this shrub can form a screen or border.  

Unpruned it can reach 10 foot heights, but Hamelia patens is usually 5-8 feet high.  It can be cut back to a shorter height of 3-4 feet, but if constantly pruned as a hedge, regular clipping removes the flowers and so destroys its most desirable feature.

This plant can take heat and drought, but a strong wind can brown the leaves.  The Firebush is known to be tolerant of the marly, shelly (high soil pH) fill-dirt found in south Florida.  Fertilize this plant sparingly to bring out its best characteristics, and don’t allow lawns to invade its root zone.

Growing new Firebush plants is easy.  They pop up from seeds and are easily rooted from cuttings.  Lower branches that lay on the ground are know to root - these make natural air-layers and create new plants as well.

The sap has been used to treat skin rashes and the fruit are reportedly edible. There are several references to the reputed medicinal uses that are outside the scope of this horticulturalist’s area of expertise.

Red or Yellow / Smooth or Hairy?

According to native plant experts, the true native Firebush has reddish-orange or mostly red flowers and dull hairy leaves.   If the flowers are yellow to red-orange and the leaves are smooth, chances are this is the non-native form, Hamelia patens var. glabra.  

The yellow flowered forms are native to middle America, but are not Florida natives.  They moved to Europe and then to South Africa100 years ago, and were introduced back to the Florida nursery trade from a Pretoria botanical garden.  As a result, they may be called “African Firebush” or Hamelia patens 'African,' suggesting that it is a named selection of our native Firebush.  Some nursery listings call them Hamelia nodosa.

The Florida native Firebush Hamelia patens (left) has orange-red flowers and hairy leaves, while the non-native form, Hamelia patens var. glabra  (R) has yellowish flowers and smooth leaf texture.  Photos by Forest and Kim Starr, USGS (L)  and Vic Ramey, UF/IFAS (R)

Some Firebush plants have a more compact habit.  Unfortunately, no one has been able to reliably determine the origin of plants being sold as Hamelia patens 'Dwarf' or 'Compacta.'  There is also a new cultivar of Hamelia patens called 'Firefly' with leaves and flowers about half the normal size.

The concern is that as non-native imports become more popular in local landscapes, they will interbreed with our native forms and alter the natural populations of Firebushes.  No one is certain if the resulting hybrids will make it difficult for native Firebush populations to survive, and the wildlife that depends on them may also be affected by a loss of the native genetic makeup of Florida’s Firebush. 

I’ve placed photos of both kinds of Firebushes and links to more information on our Okeechobee web page, http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu.  If you need additional information on the Firebush, please email us at okeechobee@ifas.ufl.edu or call us at 863-763-6469.  Local residents can stop by our office at 458 Hwy 98 North in Okeechobee, and visit our Okeechobee County Master Gardeners from 1 to 3 PM on Tuesday afternoons. GO GATORS!


Trade names, where used, are given for the purpose of providing specific information. They do not constitute an endorsement or guarantee of products named, nor does it imply criticism of products not named. The Florida Cooperative Extension Service - Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer authorized to provide research, educational information, and other services to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap, or national origin.  Florida Cooperative Extension Service / IFAS / University of Florida.  Larry A.  Arrington, Dean Last update: 03/21/2007 .  This page is maintained by Dan Culbert 



Alvarez, Diane S.  Firebush - An Abundance of Offerings. Palmetto: UF/IFAS Manatee County Extension Service, Garden Bench 6, 1,  1/07. http://manatee.ifas.ufl.edu/MasterGardeners/Garden_Bench/Garden_Bench_January_07.pdf

Bailey, CarolPlant Profile: Firebush.  Stuart: Treasure Coast Newspapers, 3/4/07 http://www.tcpalm.com/tcp/home_and_garden/0,2544,TCP_1039,00.html 

Creech, David.  (Hamelia patens) Firebush    Nacogdoches, Texas: SFASU Mast Arboretum, (undated) http://arboretum.sfasu.edu/plants/hameliapatens/hamelia%20patens.htm 

Elias,T.S., and Pooler, M.R.  The identity of the African firebush (Hamelia) in the ornamental nursery tradeHortScience. 39:1224-1226. (October 10, 2004) http://www.ars.usda.gov/research/publications/publications.htm?seq_no_115=143186

Francis, John K.  Hamelia patens Jacq. Firebush.  San Juan: USDA Forest Service, (2001?). http://www.fs.fed.us/global/iitf/pdf/shrubs/Hamelia%20patens.pdf  

Gilman, Ed and Merow, Alan.   Hamelia patens Firebush  [Fact Sheet FPS-237].  Gainesville:  UF/IFAS Extension Service,10/99.  http://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/shrubs/HAMPATA.PDF 

Hammer, Roger.  Native & Non-Native Firebush, Know the Difference.   Melbourne: AFNN Wholesale Native Plant & Service Directory,  2004-2005,  p.83.  http://www.afnn.org/upload/pdf_forms/article4firebush.pdf 

Wilson, Sandra BAfrican Fire Bush, Mexican Fire Bush Fort Pierce:  UF/IFAS IRREC, 2007.