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Summertime, Fourth of July and ‘firecrackers’

July 1, 2011
By JOYCE COMINGORE, Garden Club of Cape Coral


Special to The Breeze

Summertime and the living is easy? With the rainy season starting, we will be busy weeding, mowing, fighting bugs and fungus and staying prepared for any hurricanes. These never make summer easy. Summertime is definitely here. Time for Fourth of July picnics and fireworks. Snap, crackle, pop and bang!

I am amazed at the number of plants named firecracker. I have a firecracker hibiscus, firecracker orchid, firecracker salvia, also firecracker daylilies, allium and even Hamelia patens, the firebush bush sometimes called firecracker bush.

Every plant group seems to have a firecracker variety. Googling "firecracker" plant, I found fireworks (firecracker) factory (plant). Wrong - but having been in the nursery business and managing a floral shop, I was aware of three popular plants nicknamed firecracker.

A popular indoor plant with deep green, shiny leaves, Crossandra infundibuliformis, whose family name is Acanthaceae, is native to southern India, Sri Lanka and Tropical Africa. It has clusters of flat bright orange, three to five-lobed disk blooms that bloom all year long. This perennial has other colors, but they all wait to disperse their seeds by exploding (firecracker sound) out of dried seedpods when they are introduced to water. This insures that there is a supply of moisture in which the seeds can germinate.

It's an evergreen shrub that grows from one foot to about three feet tall and grows as wide as it is high, thriving in zones 10 and 11, outside with a minimum temperature of 55 degrees. Crosssandra needs to be pruned often to keep it tidy, bushy and compact.

Cuphea ignea, another firecracker plant, also known as the cigar plant, is a semi-woody, 2-foot-tall and wide shrub with a twiggy look. A member of the loosestrife family, which also includes crape myrtle, it gets its name from the red-orange flowers, borne singly at the nodes, that are shaped like a stubby, 1 1/2-inch cigar having a band of blue-black, then a white band that resembles cigar ashes at the tips. In a patriotic fervor, it's sometimes called the red, white, and blue plant.

New flowers follow growth, so if it stops growing, it stops flowering. Being tropical, it loves our summertime heat. Ignea translates from Latin (ignite, ignition, igneous rock) as "fire," which is what their seeds in a capsule do when they split open as the flower tube is ruptured. Hummingbirds love these blossoms.

My favorite firecracker plant, is the weepy Russelia equisetiformis. Named for an 18th century English doctor and traveler, Alexander Russell, Russelia, and horses tail, equisetiformis, because its multi reed-like stems that rise up and fall weeping when they get top heavy from their ferny tips with bright red tubular flower that bloom all year long, resemble a horse's tail. Weeping down like a fountain of water, the blossoms resemble inch-long firecrackers exploding in their foliage. I tried several times to start this plant, and when I had it established successfully, I felt confident enough to ignore it for several years. It reminded me of the delicate coral belles I grew up with, and loved and left in Ohio.

All of a sudden, I couldn't find my signature rock out front, or my rambling rose bush, and my swamp lilies. That firecracker had grown five to eight feet high and spread across the whole front of my house. I was soon digging and pulling up those long running roots, along with the swamp lily bulbs that were tangled into those wildly run-away roots. There were a lot of bulbs and roots tossed into the horticulture waste pile that day.

My Rusellia equisetiformis eventually became a manageable display. I have seen some plants that people have chopped and shaped, sometimes classified as sub-shrubs because they are not quite vines. Pruning them keeps them compact and helps promote flowering, so prune severely in the spring. Mine grew straight up and climbed my front cement blocks around the garage corners. They can be tacked to trellises or walls and do their weeping from the top.

Also called the fountain plant or coral plant, it is native to Mexico, and has "escaped" cultivation, developing in disturbed sites in central and south Florida. Belonging to the figwort family, (almost shades of Harry Potter), Scrophulariacea, hardy in zones 9 to 12, damaged by freeze, this firecracker needs well drained soil, but isn't really soil fussy. Full sun promotes lush growth, thick foliage and heavy blooms; in partial shade, blooming is less proficient.

I have seen new ones in hanging baskets, but the best use is hanging out of planters, cascading down the top of hills to help hold the soil, mass border plantings as in roadway medians, making dependable space fillers. Propagate by spreading a branch over the soil and covering joints with soil, or rooting stem cuttings, and their multitude of seeds and seedlings.

Relatives include snapdragons, Digitalis, Veronica, Angelonia and Torenia. There are 75 different kinds of Russelia, with many colors available: red, yellow, white, orange, and pink. Butterflies, buckeye, hummingbirds and bees love these flowers, especially the red ones. So do people; I love them in bouquets and arrangements.

Hands down, firecracker, Russelia equisetiformis, wins the Best Fourth of July Flower Award. Have a blooming, booming, bang up (and safe) Fourth of July.

And, yes, thank a plant.

Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, a national director of the American Hibiscus Society, a board member of the Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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