Fire bush


A sturdy bush: The firebush may not be the most spectacular of plants, but is a hardy grower unfazed by the harshest tropical heat.

Set your garden on fire

I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. A fireman. Iím not sure if it was a helmet fixation (I have to be careful how I say that) or sliding down that big shiny pole (I think Iím digging myself deeper here) but I really wanted to be a fireman. That would be ďfirefighterĒ to those offended by such an obviously sexist term.

Then I changed my mind when I discovered that sprinting into burning buildings and extinguishing raging infernos was not exactly the safest profession in the world. It was then that I looked around and decided that being an astronaut was my destiny. After all, they get to walk on the moon and everything.

My dad was the one that ended that plan. ďYouíre from Yorkshire, lad, not AmericaĒ, he informed me dramatically one day. ďThose Americans donít let us go up with them.Ē At that time they didnít and yet another door closed on one of my planned professions.

He decided that my future was with the Yorkshire cricket team. I certainly qualified in one respect, having been born in the county (a requirement at the time), but unfortunately my wistful father had overlooked one fairly significant factor: I was a terrible cricket player. He seemed to ignore the fact that I couldnít throw a ball, hit one with a bat or catch. I still canít. Shame really.

It wasnít until I got a lot older that I realized that this ďgrowing upĒ thing simply doesnít happen. Not for me, anyway Ė Iím just as infantile as I was in my teenage years. I still find farts funny. I still chuckle at pathetic double entendres. My schoolboy humor seems to be lingering somewhat; maybe Iíll grow up some day.

And what happens? I end up living in Phuket writing about gardening. Hardly what I had in mind as a dreaming youth. Here I sit, staring at the keyboard, with rain pouring down outside. The temperature has dropped from the oven-like norm, to a much more gentle heat. I havenít been outside recently, but Iíll bet that the majority of Thai people are walking around wearing coats and complaining about the cold. Is this the start of the rainy season already? It canít be.

Itís actually kind of cold I suppose, in a twisted, tropical sort of way. If this was England, weíd be huddled around inside trying to keep warm around a crackling fire, watching the stream rise from our sodden clothes. No surprise how tenuous the link between crackling European fires and gardening in Phuket is, but here we go Ė I got thinking about the firebush, or prathat thong as itís known by the coat-wearing Thais. Proper gardeners call it the Hamelia patens.

Some plants are spectacular in one or many ways. Some have incredible eye-catching blooms. Some have an amazing aroma that is caught on the wind from fifty paces, or leaves that look so spectacular that youíd swear they were created as a work of art by an artist with a particularly warped mind.

The firebush is different though. It has absolutely none of the above. In fact it should really be known as the ďnone of the aboveĒ plant. About the only thing in its favor is its name, which conceivably might cause a few immature schoolboy sniggers.

Itís certainly a bloomer, and does so year-round Ė itís just that the ďbloomsĒ in themselves are a little bit disappointing. They donít even look like flowers Ė more like tiny reddish-orange tube-like things about a centimeter long, with deep red throats. It gets its name purely because there are a lot of them, so from a distance all you see is splashes of fiery orange in the bush. Snigger.

These tiny tubular flowers are great attractors of hummingbirds, which would be great if we actually had them in Phuket. Have you ever seen a humming bird, by the way? Tiny things, they are Ė just a couple of inches long.

Anyway, back to the firebush. Its original home is Mexico, and it grows as a large evergreen shrub there. Elsewhere itís also known as the firecracker plant, for obvious reasons. Stunning it may not be, but itís a rugged bush that will grow just about anywhere it can get some sun. At those times of the year when everything else in the garden starts to look a bit frazzled and tired, the firebush will still be sitting there happily, just steadily getting on with the business of growing. You have to admire a rugged bush.

It will put up with poor soils, and is even tolerant of salt, so itís ideally suited to the island life here. If youíre feeling energetic, you can encourage the growth of more flowers by putting it in rich organic soil, which will also help it to grow more quickly. It is great as a patio plant, bedding plant or by the pool. My apologies if I start to sound like one of those sad little men on the Discovery Channel.

If you leave it alone, it will grow up to about a couple of meters, but by that time, it will look a bit straggly. If youíre intending to put a few of them together, itís better to have more of them, closer together (20 to 40 centimeters apart is about right). This way, you can allow them to expand a bit then trim them back until you have a full-blown hedge. The short term downside of the hedge idea is that pruning slows down the production of flowers, as they always grow right at the ends of the stalks.

In terms of propagation, this one is a member of the ďcut-it-and-stick-itĒ club. Just cut off a reasonably thick, healthy-looking branch and push it unceremoniously into some damp compost or, if you donít have any, even plain soil will do. Itíll probably take root anyway Ė just wait for it to start growing.

If you like a fiery bush, the firebush is perfect. Whatís more, with its name it brings out the immature sniggering youth in all of us. At least I hope itís not just me that hasnít quite grown up yet. Personally, I hope I never will.



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