Monday, December 5, 2011

Firespike adds festive touch to garden

A cloudless sulfur butterfly sips nectar from a firespike bloom

Simply Living
December 5, 2011

During December when brown leathery sycamore leaves are covering the ground and orange tangerines dangle from citrus trees like ornaments, the waxy red blooms of firespike add a festive glow to the garden.

Firespike, botanically known as Odontonema strictum, is an herbaceous perennial with foot-long spikes of showy flowers extending out of glossy foliage. Standing about 6 feet tall in shrubby clumps, this South American native is a wonderful addition to the landscape because it doubles both as an easy-to-grow bush and a wildlife magnet to butterflies and hummingbirds.

I can't remember when I first discovered the firespike plant or where my original cutting came from but this late-summer-through-winter bloomer has been adding color to my garden palette for years. Because it is so tall, firespike does best as a background plant where it can stretch upward without overshadowing shorter plants.

On several occasions, I've made the mistake of placing it in the wrong spot but I've managed to dig up and move plants without problems. That's because firespike is resilient. This drought-tolerant perennial will happily grow in sunny as well as shady locations and is easily propagated by divisions, cuttings or sometimes even by sticking a clipped off branch into the ground.

One has to wonder if a plant this easy to propagate is invasive. Fortunately, the answer is 'No.' Although it readily reseeds, sprouts don't emerge far from the mother plant so it doesn't spread out of control. New shoots merely increase the bush's girth.

Firespike's waxy red blooms, born in clusters along foot-long stems, make great cut flowers. They look especially nice in bouquets with Mexican sunflowers, another late-season blossom. I'm not alone in finding firespike attractive. Many species of butterflies like them as well. Cloudless sulfur butterflies are especially fond of this winter source of nectar. On a sunny day, several of the white-to-pale-yellow flutterers hover around a bush as if awaiting entry to a popular eatery.

Hummingbirds come to dine, too. Individual flowers have thin tubes with fluted rims that seem ready made to accommodate a hummingbird's bill. The blooms are also a brilliant candy-cane red, a color hummers find most attractive.

If you're thinking firespike sounds like the perfect plant, you're not far off. In addition to its tolerance of either shade or sunlight, firespike accepts a variety of soil conditions. It does well in sandy, loamy or even clay soil and doesn't suffer when pruned back during the growing season.

However, like most things that seem too good to be true, firespike has an imperfection: It can't tolerate cold. For the past three winters, freezing temperatures have killed back the top growth on every one of my bushes. Although the roots don't die and the plants rebound the next year, their sensitivity to cold leaves me, well, in the cold.

A single failing, however, can't spoil my enjoyment of this seasonal beauty. If firespike makes December a bit more festive and then fades away when freezing weather hits, so be it. Sometimes it's the tiny flaws that make us appreciate beauty, and the inevitable fade only makes the present more special.


  1. This is a great article! Now that I've read this, I'm going to try to transplant one this spring.

    1. Firespike is a very easy plant to start from cuttings. You can take some cuttings now and put them in pots in a shady place where they'll get water and in a few months they will be ready to transplant.