A plant known as a firespike or scarlet flame should tell you immediately this is special. And if you are an adventurous gardener, right now they are showing out in your landscape and attracting both hummingbirds and butterflies. They are indeed among the best for the backyard nature habitat.
The firespike is known botanically as Odontonema strictum and is native to Central America. It is in the acanthus family, which offers many of our finest landscape flowers and foliage such as the Brazilian plume flower, yellow shrimp plant and sanchezia. The list is long and the firespike is among the best.
Though it is a tropical, and will remain evergreen in zones 10 and higher, gardeners in zones 8 and 9 will find them returning from the ground after typical winters. And in zone 7, a protective layer of mulch and a southern exposure may entice a spring return. Even in northern zones it is worthy as an annual, and propagates with ease giving you the opportunity to have small but manageable plants to overwinter indoors.
You will be thrilled with the large dark green glossy succulent-like leaves and fiery red tubular blossoms borne on spikey panicles reaching up to 12 inches in length. At the Coastal Botanical Garden in Savannah, Ga., ours are pushing 5 feet tall and, like many other flowers in the family, seem to be the perfect treat for hummingbirds and a host of butterflies — including yellow sulphurs. The sulphurs help create a special pizzazz and color partnership. In colder zones they will be 24 to 36 inches tall. Know that from late summer through frost these will be among the showiest plants in the garden.
I love them when grown in high shifting light where they are tolerating shade one minute and then the next sunlight is hitting their blossoms with what many consider the showiest red available for the garden. They perform well in full sun but it is the part-shade gardens where I become mesmerized by their beauty.
The firespike thrives in well-drained, fertile organic-rich soil. Space your plants 2 to 3 feet apart. Though they can tolerate a little dryness or drought, you will like the look and lushness of the plant better if you give it a little supplemental water. The plant spreads underground but not invasively — just the right amount — giving you a nice manageable clump.
Those wanting to create their corner of paradise will want to partner it with the cold-hardy Japanese fiber banana (Musa basjoo), the tough-but-fragrant butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium) and some extra coarse or bold leaf texture from the Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) or elephant ear. It also looks exceptional grown in front of the white picket fence for a Caribbean Cottage like you might find on the island of Saba or St. Barts.
In the warmest regions you can plant them now but in colder areas you will want to be searching out your sources for spring planting. Some gardeners are a little timid when it comes to growing tropical, but once you see the beauty of the blossoms, butterflies and hummingbirds you will be glad you did.