Cuphea— The heather that isn’t By Rick Schoellhorn

Cuphea hyssopifola (False Mexican Heather) is one of the most commonly used annuals, renowned for its drought tolerance, constant show of color and ease of production. But this plant is only the tip of the iceberg for this group of really strong annual and occasionally perennial flowers. While recently working with the USDA germplasm conservatory in Ames, Iowa, I got a chance to look a little deeper into these plants.

Crape Myrtle Cousins

Cuphea were originally brought to the United States as aseed oil crop with potential to supplement feed proteins and some householddetergents. There are 260 species all told, but only a few of these have madeit into the industry. Most species are highly attractive to nectar-feedinginsects and hummingbirds, which is an additional bonus at the retail level.

The genus Cuphea belongs in the family Lythraceae, whichmakes them distant cousins of the Crape Myrtles. Other than giving me a chanceto use a 4-syllable word, this tells you a lot about Cuphea and its productionand landscape preferences. All Cuphea grow best in full sun and bloom best whenin bright light. They tolerate low water situations and flower, for the mostpart, non-stop through the growing season. Some are slightly salt-tolerant, butmost species are a bit sensitive to salt spray.

Species breakdown

Cuphea hyssopifolaÑ The False Mexican Heathers, these are the backbone of the commercialgreenhouse industry. It has dense, dark green foliage (1/4-1/2 inches), tinywhite, pink, or lavender flowers and is tough as nails in the landscape. Easilygrown, time from rooted liner to finished gallon is 6-8 weeks.

Cuphea palustrisÑ While rare in the industry, this is a promising plant, and flowers aresimilar to False Mexican Heather, but slightly larger and more two-toned incolor. The plant has a much looser form and spills over the edge of the pot,making it great in baskets.

Cuphea procumbensÑ A lot of the newer cultivars of Cuphea purpurea have flowers up to oneand one-half inches in diameter, and if you look closely at them, they arealmost identical to Crape Myrtle blooms. The foliage on these plants is larger(up to two inches in diameter), and the leaf surface is covered with stickyhairs. They have some of the largest flowers of the group, are annuals, and herein Florida have a tendency to slow down on flowering in the heat of summer butare very strong in both spring and fall. In mild climates the plants reseedfreely. ç

One of the more common cultivars is 'Firefly',with crimson blooms. Try these plants in mixed containers and baskets to createa higher dollar return.

Cuphea ignea ÑThese are the cigar flowers, named for their cylindrical blooms that, Isuppose, look a bit like cigars. Flower color ranges from red and deep orangeto pink. Many cultivars have flowers that resemble candy corn, shading fromyellow through orange and into red colors all on one flower. In general theseare annuals, although many cultivars will become perennials in mild climates.Height is also variable with dwarf forms reaching eight inches and taller formsup to four feet in height.

Cuphea varia ÑThese are coming on the market in the South and have gray-toned foliage withpale pink blooms. The growth habit is more open, with plants reaching 12-14inches in height and blooming continuously through the summer.

Cuphea llaveaÑThese are the "bat-faced" Cuphea with prominent upper petalsand usually red- and purple-toned flowers. These are very easy and somewhatdrought tolerant, although in production wilting really reduces quality. Inmild areas they are perennials but are treated as annuals. 'GeorgiaScarlet' is one of this group, at least I'm fairly sure it is, buta quick Internet search produced three different species being sold under thesame name. ç

Cuphea micropetalaÑ There is one Cuphea that we treat as a perennial here in the South thatis a fall- and spring-bloomer reaching 5-6 feet in height, with a spread ofabout 3-4 feet. To my knowledge, this is the only Cuphea in the industry thatis short-day flowering. So growers should act now to plant this speciesaccordingly; it can be brought in early to get the spring flowering market orpurchased in summer to augment the fall flowering season.

All in all there are almost 40 cultivars on the market, witha rainbow of hues, and the best in landscape performance. They are all easy toproduce in most greenhouses and require little aside from normal bedding plantcare to do well. Because of their odd-shaped flowers and easy habit, they arevery popular in retail nurseries, but wholesale growers may need to promotethem a bit — there are enough different types to make it confusing forbuyers.

Editor's Note: Stay tuned for Rick Schoellhorn'scoverage of the California Pack Trials, appearing exclusively in the June andJuly issues of GPN. And don't forget to take along GPN's Pack TrialPlanner, which appeared as a supplement in the February issue, to help youcoordinate your trip. For anyone planning to visit Golden State Bulb Growersthis month, please note that the Pack Trial Planner map mistakenly identifiedthis company's location; their trials will be in Watsonville, notEncinitas. All other information pertaining to Golden State is correct. Weapologize for any confusion or inconvenience this may have caused.

Rick Schoellhorn

Rick Schoellhorn is associate professor of horticulture at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla. He can be reached by phone at (352) 392-1831 x634 or E-mail at

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