False Heather blooms continuously and is low maintenance and heat tolerant.

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Cuphea 'Southern Border' Picture courtesy MalanseunsCuphea 'Southern Border' Picture courtesy MalanseunsFalse heathers have gained widespread appeal not only for their lush green or golden foliage and abundance of tiny flowers in many delicate colours, but also for their heat tolerance.

Although the flowers are small, they make up for this by flowering abundantly throughout summer until the first frosts, and in warm regions they are grown as evergreen perennials which will bloom all year round.

They grow well both inland and at the coast, but in cold and frosty regions they are often grown as summer annuals. However, if the plants are covered and mulched in autumn, they will often re-sprout again next season, and because they self-seed, volunteer seedlings are sure to pop up in spring.

Cuphea is a genus containing approximately 260 species of annual and perennial flowering plants native to warm temperate and tropical regions of the Americas. The species range from low-growing herbaceous plants to semi-woody shrubs up to 2m tall. Commonly they are called “cupheas”, or in the case of some species, “cigar plants”, “bat-faced” or “tiny mice” cupheas. The various species come in a wide variety of colours, shapes, and flower sizes, and their small star-like, or tubular blossoms wear shades of white, lilac, purple, pink, orange, bright yellow, and red.

Cuphea 'Lemon and Ice'Cuphea 'Lemon and Ice'In recent years, breeders around the world have introduced new hybrids with showier flowers on even more compact plants, as well as a beautiful collection of colour combinations to choose from. In South Africa false heather is freely available, but sadly cigar and mouse plants are now hard to find.

False Heather, Mexican Heather, Stardust Bush (Cuphea hyssopifolia)

False heather is freely available in South Africa, and this tiny tropical evergreen sub-shrub has many charming attributes. It is also commonly called “Mexican Heather” because it is native to Mexico, and parts of Guatemala. In some regions, this plant is also known as the "elfin herb" due to its small flowers and foliage. The species name ‘hyssopifolia’ alludes to the similarity of the foliage to that of the European herb called “hyssop”. However, although heather-like in appearance, this plant is not a member of the heather family.

If you want to add a ‘heathery-look’ to you garden you can’t go wrong with this popular garden plant which is evergreen, and neat and compact, forming mounds of small glossy, finely textured foliage which can be bright green or a delightful golden to lime-green. Its masses of tiny bell-shaped flowers come in pretty shades of lilac and lilac-pink, to purple and pure white.   

Cuphea hyssopifolia ‘Hybrids’ grow quickly and vary in height, with the dwarf forms reaching about 15 to 25cm tall, often with an even broader spread, making them very useful as edging plants. The taller varieties grow about 45 to 60cm tall with a 60cm spread, making them perfect to fill in gaps in the middle of the flower border.

Cuphea Llavea Picture courtesy JKehoe Photos - see his flickr linkCuphea Llavea Picture courtesy JKehoe Photos - see his flickr linkAlways remember that the mature plant sizes given may vary due to growing conditions and climate.

Beautiful hybrids include:

False Heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia ‘Midget’) has green-yellow foliage with masses of bright lilac-pink flowers. This dwarf only grows +-15 to 20cm tall with an equal or greater spread.

False Heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia ‘Lemon Squash’) has delightful golden to lime-green foliage and lilac coloured flowers. It is very compact, growing +-20 to 30cm tall and 30 to 40cm wide.

False Heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia ‘Lemon & Ice’) has lemon-yellow foliage and pure white flowers. It is very compact, growing +-20 to 30cm tall and 30 to 40cm wide.

False Heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia ‘Cocktail’) has yellow-green foliage and purple flowers. It is compact, growing +-40 to 50cm tall and 50 to 60cm wide.

False Heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia ‘White Star’) produces bright green foliage with pure white flowers. It is compact, growing +-30 to 40cm tall and spreading 40 to 50cm.

Bat-faced or Tiny Mice Cuphea (Cuphea llavea) Picture courtesy JKehoe Photos - see his flickr linkBat-faced or Tiny Mice Cuphea (Cuphea llavea) Picture courtesy JKehoe Photos - see his flickr linkMexican Heather, False Heather, Stardust Bush (Cuphea mexicana)

Cuphea mexicana is very similar to Cuphea hyssopifolia but generally has larger leaves.

Mexican Heather (Cuphea mexicana ‘Lilac Wonder’ & ‘White Wonder’) both have green leaves and lilac or white flowers. They are compact, growing +-40 to 50cm tall and spreading 50 to 60cm.

Mexican Heather (Cuphea mexicana 'Southern Border') has green leaves and bright pink flowers. It is compact and grows +-30cm tall with a spread of 40cm.

Mexican Heather (Cuphea mexicana ‘Confetti Carpet’) has lush-green foliage and pure white flowers. This dwarf only grows +-20cm tall with an equal or greater spread.

The following Cupheas used to be popular garden plants in South Africa, but sadly they are no longer easy to find.  Old established gardens may sport a few, so for identification purposes we have included them here. If you do find them growing, take a few cuttings for your garden, and if you see them for sale, snatch a few – they are truly worth it!

Bat-faced or Tiny Mice Cuphea (Cuphea llavea)

Cuphea llavea  is native to Mexico and noted for its masses of long tubular-shaped flowers, adorned with a pair of red ear-like petals and a purple calyx that resemble the face of a bat, or tiny mice, hence their common names. Their ovate, dark green leaves are larger than the ‘false heather’ and the plants reach heights of about 45 to 75cm with a spread of 60 to 90cm.  Their cultivation requirements and uses in the garden landscape are the same as for Cuphea hyssopifolia and Cuphea Mexicana.

Cuphea ignea 'Cigar Bush' Picture courtesy Forest and Kim Starr - see flickr linkCuphea ignea 'Cigar Bush' Picture courtesy Forest and Kim Starr - see flickr linkBat-faced cupheas are not freely available in South Africa, but ‘Flamenco ‘Samba’ can be found here.

Bat-faced Cuphea (Cuphea llavea ‘Flamenco ‘Samba’) is compact and grows about 40cm tall with a spread of 60cm. It bears bearing cherry red blooms with dark centres and deep purple throats.

Cigar or Cigarette Bush, Firecracker Plant (Cuphea ignea)

Cigarette bushes are native to Mexico and the West Indies, and used to be very popular in South African gardens but sadly are no longer freely available.  Cuphea ignea originates from tropical and warm temperate locations in America and may grow up to 2m high.  Ist beautiful flowers resemble small burning cigars or cigarettes, hence their common names. Flower colours range greatly from shades of bright red and vivid purple, to pastel pink and white, and each flower is tipped with a thin, white rim and two small purple-black petals.

Uses:

Ongoing research on the use of the cuphea plant for oilseed production seeks to lessen reliance on coconut and palm oils, which destroys tropical habitats. Additional research shows promising results for use of cuphea as a rotational crop; it appears that wheat and corn yields increase when those grains are grown after a year of raising cuphea.

The cigar plant is disease and pest resistant, and studies have found that it may be useful in agricultural fields to deter corn rootworms and other pests. The sticky foliage makes the plants inhospitable to both pest adults and larvae, thus disrupting their lifecycle in crop fields and leading to greater yields.

Cuphea hyssopifolia Picture courtesy Tatters - see flickr pageCuphea hyssopifolia Picture courtesy Tatters - see flickr pageIn the Garden:

False heathers are excellent in so many garden situations, and can be ‘popped in’ almost anywhere to soften the corners of paving, to make a fine nest for the base of a fountain, birdbath or sundial, or just simply to fill out beds and borders with foliage and flowers. Their vivid colours will not disappoint, and their sweet nectar makes them absolutely irresistible to sunbirds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.

All cupheas are excellent for gardens and commercial plantings, working well in beds and borders, where their fine textured leaves provide a gentle contrast to coarser leaved shrubs. They also make excellent pot subjects, blending nicely with other plants, and not requiring special attention.

In tropical and subtropical areas false heather blooms all year, is bothered by few pests, and is low maintenance, requiring only minimal pruning. It is therefore often clipped into charming low boxed hedges approximately 20 to 30cm high, and is also used as a groundcover. 

Cultivation/Propagation:

Cuphea 'Pink'Cuphea 'Pink'Although cupheas grow best in tropical, sub-tropical and temperate regions, where they are treated as perennials, in cold and frosty winter regions they are treated as summer flowering annuals. In severe frost regions the plants will die down completely in winter, but if the roots are thickly mulched to prevent them from freezing, and watering is sparse, they will often spring back to life again in summer, and will often seed themselves in the garden.

Cupheas love full sun but will take some shade, and in extremely hot and dry summer regions, semi-shade or full shade at midday is recommended. They will adapt to most fertile garden soils which drain well and will struggle in very heavy and clay soils.

They are not water guzzlers but will look at their best if watered moderately during hot and dry summer spells. Those growing in pots will need more frequent watering. Fertilise regularly throughout the summer for the best, biggest, and most consistent display.

If you are growing cupheas as evergreen perennials light pruning can be done anytime, or in spring, to help encourage a flush of new growth, as well as to keep the plants looking nicely maintained.

In warm areas false heather will self-sow around the garden and large clumps may be divided in early summer. Plants can also be propagated by taking short tip cuttings.

Cuphea 'White'Cuphea 'White'

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

If grown correctly cupheas do not suffer from serious pests or diseases.

Root Knot Nematodes: Microscopic worm-like pests cause swellings (galls) to form on roots. Plants may wilt or appear stunted.  Do not plant into infested soil.  Remove and destroy plants. Try planting marigolds around your plants.

Root Rots: A number of pathogens cause root rots of seedlings as well as mature roots. Practice crop rotation and do not plant related crops in the same area for several years. Pull up and discard infected plants. Make sure your soil has excellent drainage.

Aphids: Greenish, red, black or peach coloured sucking insects can spread disease as they feed on the undersides of leaves. They leave a sticky residue on foliage that attracts ants. Introduce or attract natural predators into your garden such as lady beetles and wasps which feed on aphids. You can also wash them off with a strong spray of water, or use an insecticidal soap.

Flea Beetles: These small hopping beetles feed on plant foliage and may spread diseases. Rotate crops with plants in a different plant family.

Thrips: These tiny, needle-thin insects that are black or straw coloured. They suck the juices of plants and attack flower petals, leaves and stems. The plant will have a stippling, discoloured flecking or silvering of the leaf surface. Thrips can spread many diseases from plant to plant. Many thrips may be repelled by sheets of aluminum foil spread between the rows of plants. Remove weeds from the bed and remove debris from the bed after frost.

Whitefly: These are small white flying insects that often rise up in a cloud when plants are disturbed or brushed against. They are difficult to control without chemicals specific to them, but insecticidal soap may help. 

Warning:

Dermatitis: The sap of these plants may cause a skin rash or irritation. Wash the affected area of skin with soap and water as soon as possible after contact. Babies and young children should always be supervised in the garden, and pets should be discouraged from chewing on plants.