Table of Contents
Firecracker Plant: How To Grow & Care For Cuphea
About The Firecracker Plant
The Firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis) is a flower of many names, including:
- Cuphea ignea
- Cigar Plant
- Cigar Flower
- Mexican Cigar
- Firecracker Fern
- Coral Fountain
By any of these names, it has characteristically delicate red tubular-shaped flowers. From Spring to Fall, the blossoms cover the shrubby stems to bring a vibrant pop of color to any outer landscape or brightly lit indoor space.
There are roughly 260 Cuphea flower species, ranging in size from small ground-covering varieties to tall shrubs. The Cuphea family of plants originated in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America heat-tolerant regions before new varieties were cultivated in North America.
Although there are abundant Cuphea varieties, they are a relative newcomer to ornamental plant horticulture. In recent years, breeders have been blending colors and traits to form grand ornate blooming displays with similar heat tolerance and hardiness.
In the food science world, the Cuphea plant is being studied for oilseed production that could potentially relieve world dependence on coconut and palm oils, according to Better Homes & Gardens. It also sees promise as a “rotational crop” that has shown to increase food yields of corn and wheat when grown a year after Cuphea, giving it beauty and function!
Many Cupheas sport the famous cigar-shaped flower of different colors or combinations of colors. Cuphea is a member of the loosestrife family, which also encompasses primroses and myrtles.
The Firecracker variety of Cuphea is the Cuphea ignea, with the latter meaning “resembling fire.”
The Firecracker flower is dark red with a dark ring near the top and an ashy white “mouth” resembling a lit cigar.
They have a hardy shrubby body and can grow 20-37 cm tall. They typically take 5-10 years to reach their full height. An individual plant can reach a width of up to feet.
The best location for your Cuphea plant is one where it will have space to grow several feet in width and height over time.
Cuphea makes an excellent edging for sidewalks and borders. It also does well as a hanging plant or companion plant that likes similar light and soil conditions in a container.
Other great landscaping uses for the Firecracker plant:
- Cascading over a wall
- Corner filler
- As part of a mixed bed
- At the base of a pergola
- Along a deck
Let's Get Growing
What Zones Are Suitable For The Firecracker Plant
The Firecracker plant is compatible with USDA Zones 8a-12. This plant does well naturally in zones 10-12 but will need to be moved inside for winter seasons in zones just below that.
This variety of Cuphea is a Mexican native perennial that does well with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight in rich, well-draining soil that can retain some moisture. Although it is highly drought-resistant, if left in dry conditions for too long, it will not bloom as usual.
The Cuphea likes medium to high moisture conditions and might need some assistance during hot and dry summers.
Growing The Firecracker Plant From Seed
The Firecracker plant is easy to grow from seeds:
- Before the last frost of Spring, sow indoors directly in 4-6 inch pots.
- These seeds need bright light to germinate, so do not cover completely, but gently press into seed starting soil.
- Keep evenly moist, spraying lightly 1-2 times per day.
- Seedlings will emerge in 8-10 days.
- As seedlings emerge, keep them in direct sunlight.
- Grow the seedlings 3-4” high and separate them into individual pots when they have at least two sets of leaves.
- The plants can be placed outside for a week-long “hardening” period to acclimate them to outdoor conditions. While protecting them from the intense wind of sunlight, they will adapt their plant cell structure to the environment and stave off transplant shock when they are moved.
Growing the Firecracker Plant From Propagation
Once you've found success with your first “Mexican Cigar Plant,” you’ll undoubtedly want to duplicate its beauty, which is relatively simple.
Firecracker plants are easily grown from stem cuttings to be grown and propagated as new plants:
- In the Fall or Winter, you can look for healthy stems and cut 3-4” of each one.
- Once you have the cuttings, you can remove the leaves from the bottom half. It is optional at this point to dip the cuttings in a root hormone to increase your chances of future growth.
- The cuttings can be planted in nutrient-rich, moist soil. You will need to keep the soil consistently moist, and within 2-3 weeks, they should start to develop a root system and be on their way.
- When the root system becomes stronger you can either transplant them to a larger indoor pot or practice a “hardening” period outside before eventually moving them to outdoors planters for landscaping.
- When you are ready to plant the seedlings or propagate the Firecracker plant, select a location that is in full sunlight and with well-draining soil.
- Prepare the bed of soil by turning over an 8” top soil layer and removing clumps of grass or stones. Consider mixing in a nutrient-rich compost or 1-2” of organic mulch that will break down over time.
- Plant seedlings at least 12” apart in your garden, leaving plenty of buffer space to spread out over time.
The Firecracker plant will be content if you consistently provide them with water. The Firecracker plant needs consistent moisture during the establishment period (about a year). In addition, these plants can benefit from a daily misting to ensure the humidity is constant.
After the establishment period, the Firecracker plant experiences rapid growth from Summer into Fall. During this season, the plant will need sufficient moisture, while winter requires less watering.
The Firecracker plant is fairly tolerant of hot, dry summers. However, if they experience long periods of dryness, they will not bloom as usual.
Long Term Care
In the midsummer, Cuphea plants thrive in the heat. So drench your Firecracker plant with liquid plant food to support this blooming season for the most prominent and consistent display of its famous firecracker red flowers.
Occasional pruning back of dead blooms will also help to encourage new growth; however Cuphea is generally a self-maintaining plant, and intensive deadheading is unnecessary.
Move Cuphea inside if you live in a zone that may experience frost.
Fungal Disease/Pest Infestation
Root Knot Nematodes
One of the most common pests to the Firecracker plant, amongst others, are Root Knot Nematodes.
These are microscopic worm-like pests that form knots on the root systems of Cuphea plants. You will know if your plant is experiencing an infection if growth appears stunted or the plant starts to wilt. An easy fix for this pest is to plant marigolds nearby, which help to keep them away.
Cuphea commonly needs to fend off aphids, flea beetles, thrips, and whiteflies. Each does its own variety of damage to the plant's stems, leaves, and flowers. Common cures for these pests are introducing competing benevolent insects, using insecticidal soap, or covering with row netting.
Weeds are a common pest in any garden, but with Cuphea, they compete for moisture, space, and nutrients. Before the growth season starts in the Summer, be sure that Cuphea has a good start with a weed-free growing area. Apply mulch to the base of the Firecracker plant to ensure that weed seeds won't germinate.
Firecracker plants work well with any other flowering plant that is sun-loving and heat tolerant. Plants such as the Mexican Sunflower, Crossandra, and Lantana all favor frost-free zones and will close to each other, favoring similar amounts of sunlight and moisture.
All three are known to attract both butterflies and hummingbirds, making it a veritable snack station for both. Cuphea and her companions all make a great addition to any garden to watch the wildlife enjoy.