Want to make hummingbirds see red? Plant a firebush in your garden. Also called scarlet bush, it is not only among the easiest of plants to grow, but it also stays in bloom throughout the growing season with clusters of tubular red buds and flowers. Because the Southern growing season overlaps the spring and fall migration times of the ruby-throated hummingbird, and red is by far their favorite color, these blossoms will summon them to your garden.
Firebush (Hamelia patens) can be found at most nurseries and garden centers across the South, partly because it's so well adapted to our growing conditions. It's drought tolerant but doesn't mind regular water or even occasional wet feet. It is perfectly happy in alkaline soils but also fine in acid ones. Full sun will keep it happy and blooming, but so will a fair amount of shade. Firebush makes a great, fast-flowering annual shrub for borders or containers in the Middle and Upper South. It's a South Florida native, though, so it does equally well with the intense heat of a south-facing wall. It can even be used as an evergreen perennial shrub for hedges in the Tropical South, where it will reach up to 12 feet high.
Maintenance for firebush couldn't be easier. Water well while it's getting established, and then once a week if there's no rain for a while. Put mulch over the roots in the fall--firebush freezes down but usually comes back quickly in the Lower and Coastal South. Lightly shear the plant a couple of times during the growing season to promote the heaviest flowering.
In addition to attracting hummingbirds, vivid, long-blooming firebush serves as both larval food and nectar plant for butterflies. And other birds will relish its fruit. But it's those zooming crowds of hummers, particularly during fall migration when firebush has reached its full potential of size and bloom, that make this plant so popular.
Firebush: At a Glance
Size: 9 to 10 feet tall, possibly more
Soil: any well drained
Water: while getting established, or during periods of drought
Sun: full sun to light shade
Bloom season: heaviest from early summer until frost
Range: Lower, Coastal, and Tropical South as a perennial; Middle and Upper South as an annual
Comments: Occasional light shearing will keep firebush in bloom.
"Hummingbirds Love Firebush" is from the August 2002 issue of Southern Living.