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Mr. Smarty Plants - Failure to thrive of Hamelia patens in Laredo

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Friday - September 19, 2008

From: Laredo, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Soils, Watering, Shrubs
Title: Failure to thrive of Hamelia patens in Laredo
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I have a question regarding Hamelias patens(firebush)that I have been trying to grow for 2 years. I live in Laredo, Texas and this area should be an excellent climate for this plant. I planted 12 of these beautiful plants (6 on each side)up my entrance way to the house 2 years ago (they were small at time of planting, approximately 1 foot tall.) 2 years later, only 4 have barely grown approximately 3 feet tall, the rest are about 1.5 feet tall. I noticed that the taller ones get a lot more water,but even then the slower growing ones look healthy and do not seem to be drying out (they just don't want to grow.) Last winter (if you can even call it that since its so warm here) I thought they had all died because they lost all their leaves and basically did not start getting leaves until mid spring. Please help, I really think these plants would look great in my front yard if I can just get them to grow.

ANSWER:

We found an online article about Hamelia patens (scarletbush) that specifically talks about it thriving in Laredo. This Texas Cooperative Extension site PlantAnswers.com praised the plant as being almost immune to drought and loving heat. Another article from the Horticulture Department of Texas A&M by Dr. William C. Welch on Firebush comments that even in South Texas, it freezes to the ground and resprouts in early Spring. 

All our sources recommended trimming the bush heavily in February. Flowers are on new growth, so this will encourage blooming. The same sources say it can be trimmed to the ground and will still come back. However, it apparently doesn't really flourish until it gets very hot, and requires little water once established. Dr. Welch, in his article, also comments on the plant as being "typically a 4 to 5 foot mound."  We noted the existence of a cultivar called "Compacta." We're wondering if this might be what you have, in which case, you shouldn't expect it to grow very tall. Another possibility could have to do with the watering the plants are getting. They require very good drainage, and if you are watering them regularly and the soil is not draining well, it could be causing some problems. Finally, these plants do best in full sun, although they will tolerate some shade. 

We recommend that you watch for drainage problems, trim it back in the late Fall, and accept a potential height of no more than 5 ft.  It still will make a beautiful garden, and your hummingbirds will love you. Here is a page of images of Hamelia patens.

 

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