A plant known as a firespike, or scarlet flame, should tell you immediately this is special. And if you are an adventurous gardener, right now they are showing out in your landscape and attracting both hummingbirds and butterflies. They are indeed among the best for the backyard nature habitat.
The firespike, known botanically as Odontonema strictum, is native to Central America. It is in the acanthus family, which offers many of our finest landscape flowers and foliage, such as the Brazilian plume flower, yellow shrimp plant and sanchezia. The list is long and the firespike is among the best.
Though it is a tropical and will remain evergreen in zones 10 and higher, gardeners in zones 8 and 9 will find them returning from the ground after typical winters. And in zone 7, which covers much of the North Carolina Piedmont, a protective layer of mulch and a southern exposure may entice a spring return. Even in northern zones it is worthy as an annual and propagates with ease, giving you the opportunity to have small but manageable plants to overwinter indoors.
You will be thrilled with the large, dark green, glossy succulent-like leaves and fiery red tubular blossoms borne on spikey panicles reaching up to 12 inches in length. At the Coastal Botanical Gardens in Savannah, Ga., our plants are pushing 5 feet tall. In colder zones, the firespike will be 24 to 36 inches tall.
Like many other flowers in the acanthus family, they seem to be the perfect treat for hummingbirds and a host of butterflies – including yellow sulphurs. The sulphurs help create a special pizzazz and color partnership.
From late summer through frost, these scarlet beauties will be among the showiest plants in the garden.
I love them grown in high shifting light, where they are tolerating shade one minute and highlighted by sunshine the next. They perform well in full sun, but it is the part-shade gardens where I become mesmerized by their beauty.
The firespike thrives in well-drained, fertile, organic-rich soil. Space your plants 2 to 3 feet apart. Though they can tolerate a little dryness or drought, you will like the look and lushness of the plant better if you give it a little supplemental water. The plant spreads underground but not invasively – just the right amount – giving you a nice manageable clump.
Those wanting to create their corner of paradise will want to partner it with the cold-hardy Japanese fiber banana (Musa basjoo), the tough-but-fragrant butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium) and some extra coarse or bold leaf texture from the Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) or elephant ear. It also looks exceptional grown in front of a white picket fence for a Caribbean cottage look, like you might find on the island of Saba or St. Barts.
In the warmest regions you can plant them now, but in colder areas begin searching out your sources for spring planting. Some gardeners are a little timid when it comes to growing tropical, but once you see the beauty of the blossoms, butterflies and hummingbirds, you will be glad you did.
Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens.