Cuphea— The heather that isn’t

April 2, 2002 - 14:32

Try one of the lesser-known Cuphea varieties to diversify your crop mix.

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 a
seed oil crop with potential to supplement feed proteins and some household
detergents. There are 260 species all told, but only a few of these have made
it into the industry. Most species are highly attractive to nectar-feeding
insects and hummingbirds, which is an additional bonus at the retail level.

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

Species breakdown

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

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

Cuphea procumbens
— A lot of the newer cultivars of Cuphea purpurea have flowers up to one
and one-half inches in diameter, and if you look closely at them, they are
almost 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 sticky
hairs. They have some of the largest flowers of the group, are annuals, and here
in Florida have a tendency to slow down on flowering in the heat of summer but
are very strong in both spring and fall. In mild climates the plants reseed
freely. Á

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

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

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

Cuphea llavea
—These are the “bat-faced” Cuphea with prominent upper petals
and usually red- and purple-toned flowers. These are very easy and somewhat
drought tolerant, although in production wilting really reduces quality. In
mild areas they are perennials but are treated as annuals. ‘Georgia
Scarlet’ is one of this group, at least I’m fairly sure it is, but
a quick Internet search produced three different species being sold under the
same name. Á

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

All in all there are almost 40 cultivars on the market, with
a rainbow of hues, and the best in landscape performance. They are all easy to
produce in most greenhouses and require little aside from normal bedding plant
care to do well. Because of their odd-shaped flowers and easy habit, they are
very popular in retail nurseries, but wholesale growers may need to promote
them a bit — there are enough different types to make it confusing for
buyers.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for Rick Schoellhorn’s
coverage of the California Pack Trials, appearing exclusively in the June and
July issues of GPN. And don’t forget to take along GPN’s Pack Trial
Planner, which appeared as a supplement in the February issue, to help you
coordinate your trip. For anyone planning to visit Golden State Bulb Growers
this month, please note that the Pack Trial Planner map mistakenly identified
this company’s location; their trials will be in Watsonville, not
Encinitas. All other information pertaining to Golden State is correct. We
apologize for any confusion or inconvenience this may have caused.

About The Author

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 rksch@ufl.edu.

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