The Firebush is a voluptuous tropical beauty

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Hamelia patens at Enchanting Floral Gardens of Kula, Maui, Hawaii. Picture courtesy Forest and Kim Starr - see their flickr pageHamelia patens at Enchanting Floral Gardens of Kula, Maui, Hawaii. Picture courtesy Forest and Kim Starr - see their flickr pageThe Firebush is a voluptuous tropical beauty which produces flowers and berries all year round.

Firebush, Scarletbush (Hamelia patens) is a reliable tropical plant that has found its way into many a landscape because of its  proven drought  and soil tolerance – it can basically grow anywhere!

It is native to the American subtropics and tropics, ranging from the gulf states of Mexico, South Florida, the West Indies, and Central and South America, as far south as Argentina. It is a member of the Rubiaceae family, and other notable members of this family include Ixora, Gardenia, Pentas, Quinine and Coffee.

The gorgeous firebush usually bears both flowers and fruit at the same time, and has no dormant period, growing and producing flowers and berries all year round. Even the flower stems are an attractive red, contrasting beautifully with the bright green leaves; and in autumn the foliage changes to a striking blood-red colour.  The firebush is a soft-stemmed to semi-woody, evergreen perennial shrub which responds well to pruning, but if left unpruned, and under optimal conditions, can grow 4 to 5m tall. Usually it stays much smaller, growing 2.4 to 3m tall and 1.2 to 1.8m wide.

Hamelia patens fruit at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Picture courtesy Forest and Kim Starr - see their flickr pageHamelia patens fruit at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Picture courtesy Forest and Kim Starr - see their flickr pageThe long tubular, reddish-orange or scarlet flowers have dark linear stripes, and hang from the plant in tassel-like, branched clusters. Because their corollas vary greatly in length, they are attractive to a wide range of pollinators. If your plant produces flowers which are more yellow than red, and without stripes, you probably have Hamelia patens var glabra, from Mexico.

The clusters of edible fruits are showy, and each fruit is a juicy berry with many small seeds; ripening from green to yellow, then red, and finally black. The berry is deceptive raw, with an initial sweetness and grape-like texture that yields to a sticky, lingering, slightly bitter but refreshing acidic aftertaste in the back of the mouth, so try one to see if you like them. The fruits are known to contain several active phytochemicals which have antibacterial and antifungal properties, and in Mexico they are made into a fermented drink. The fruit is also relished by birds, dispersing them far and wide.

With all this going for her, who could resist this voluptuous tropical beauty!


The Mayans called the firebush “Ix-canan,” meaning guardian of the forest, but it also seems to be a guardian of the people! In Belize the leaves, stems and flowers are boiled in water and used to treat a variety of skin problems including, sores, rashes, wounds, burns, itching, cuts, skin fungus, insect stings and bites. This same liquid is drunk as a tea to relieve menstrual cramps. The Choco Indians in Panama drink a leaf infusion to treat fever and diarrhoea, and the Ingano Indians make a leaf infusion for intestinal parasites. Tribes in Venezuela chew on the leaves to lower body temperature and help prevent a sun or heat stroke. In Brazil the root is used as a diuretic, and the leaves for scabies and headaches. Cubans use the leaves externally for headaches and sores, while a decoction is taken internally for rheumatism. In Mexico it is used externally to stop excessive bleeding, and to help heal wounds.

In laboratory tests on animals, leaf extracts showed analgesic, diuretic, and hypothermic actions. External use showed significant anti-inflammatory activity as well as antibacterial and antifungal properties.

Hamelia patens. Picture courtesy Bob Peterson - see his flickr pageHamelia patens. Picture courtesy Bob Peterson - see his flickr pageThe industrial use of the plant comes from its high amounts of tannins, and the hard, brown wood also has practical applications.

In the Garden:

The firebush is known as one of the best plants to attract butterflies and sunbirds to the garden, and it will feed our feathered friends for most of the year. And, because it responds well to pruning and can be kept smaller, it is great even for small gardens.
In the tropics it is widely used as a hedge or screen and is often planted in mass plantings and borders, mixed with other shrubs. It is especially attractive mixed with white flowering shrubs and annuals. The firebush is also suitable for planting around the foundations of buildings.

It is very effective if planted as a solitary specimen, and is often used as a small tree in tropical gardens, despite its somewhat scraggy appearance. If it is planted under a small tree, it will develop an almost vine-like habit, growing up into the tree and blooming as it gets closer to the brighter parts of the outer canopy, producing an interesting combination.

The firebush also does well in containers where it can be placed on a patio in summer and brought inside to a sunny location during the winter.


The firebush is a tropical to subtropical plant that is tender to frost. In cold climates it is often grown as a summer annual, where under these short growing conditions it remains a dwarf, about 60cm tall.In frost-free regions it is wonderfully adaptable, growing in hot and dry climates, as well as hot and humid climates, inland and at the coast. Although the firebush thrives in the heat it can sometimes become stressed if it is planted in an unnaturally hot location like up against a very hot wall, or in a pot placed on hot paving. Try to protect it from excessive strong wind, which can cause some leaf browning.

Although the plant thrives in full sun, it will take some shade - in too much shade it can become leggy and will not flower as well. It can tolerate many types of soils from heavy clays to high alkaline as long as it has good drainage. For good results in the garden water regularly during dry spells, but avoid overwatering. To keep the show going, feed every 6 to 8 weeks with a fertiliser for flowering plants.

Since it has no dormant season, pruning can be done at any time - to initiate new growth and more blooms, try to prune at least every year or so. However, a hedge of firebush will need fairly regular clipping, which unfortunately also removes many flowers.

Propagate by softwood cuttings or air-layering in spring. Fresh seed will also germinate readily.

Pests & Diseases:

Organic gardeners will be delighted to know that the firebush does not have many of the pest or disease problems that plague so many other tropical plants. Occasional attacks of scales or mites may require control measures, and the new growth may be attacked by aphids in early spring, but natural predators often rapidly check the invasion.


For those who worry about poisonous plants in the landscape, the nontoxic nature of the firebush will come as a welcome relief.