How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Firecracker Plants
Are you looking for a shrub or hanging plant that brings a bit of drama and a ton of color to the garden? Firecracker Plant does all of that and more! In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss discusses how to grow and care for this fun evergreen plant.
If you’re looking for a plant that brings a ton of fun to the garden and also makes a colorful potted plant, look no further than the firecracker plant. Also known as coral fountain or fountain plant, the firecracker plant adds a great textural element to the garden, and pollinators love it!
Firecracker Plants Overview
Plant Type Perennial Evergreen
Species R. equisetiformis
Native Area Mexico and Guatemala
Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Soil Sandy, Loamy, Clay, Chalk, Well-Draining
Hardiness Zones 9-11
Bloom Colors Orange, Red, White, Pink
Season Spring – Fall
Pests Spider Mites, Caterpillars, Mealybugs, Thrips
Diseases Root Rot
Resistant To Salt
About Firecracker Plant
Grow this versatile plant as a shrub, hanging plant, ground cover, espalier, or spilling over a balcony or rock wall. It has a lovely weeping growth habit that creates a subtle drama wherever you grow it. As a winner of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, this is a special plant that is certain to draw attention from onlookers and hummingbirds.
The firecracker plant is a member of the Plantiginaceae family, also known as the Plantain family. This family of plants is large and diverse, including plants such as snapdragon, speedwell, and beardtongue.
The flowers of plants in the Plantiginaceae family can be single or grow in clusters and typically have both male and female reproductive parts. There are approximately 94 genera in the species and 1,900 species across the genera.
Firecracker plant is of the genus Russelia, named for Scottish naturalist Alexander Russell. Most species are flowering shrubs that tolerate a wide range of soil types and exposure from full sun to nearly full shade. These plants are perennial evergreens in their native zones. They bloom year-round in some cases, ans have long blooming periods and a brief dormancy in others.
The species R. equestiformis gets its name from the appearance of its branches and comes from the Latin ‘like Equestium,’ meaning horsetail rush. It is commonly used as an ornamental and is particularly popular among hummingbirds.
The flowers are the main event for the firecracker plant. They are bountiful and have an extended blooming season lasting three seasons, from spring through fall. The flowers are typically scarlet, although some cultivars produce flowers in shades of pink, orange, yellow, and white.
The nickname firecracker plant comes from the appearance and bounty of flowers this pretty plant produces. The flowers appear in loose clusters along gently weeping branches, giving the effect of a firework in its full display. The individual flowers are about 1” long and tubular and draw a variety of hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden.
The leaves of the firecracker plant are small and delicate in appearance. The foliage generally has a fernlike appearance, bringing textural interest to the garden. The long, arching, branched stems are dense, but the leaves are delicate, so the foliage as a whole is only moderately lush until the plant gets rather large, which it will do in time.
The leaves are finely ovate with no visible venation and are arranged on stems opposite each other. These leaves range from 2-4” long, are bright green, and remain evergreen, with no change to foliage in the fall.
Firecracker plants can be propagated by seed, but this is not the most efficient method, as the seeds take a long time to germinate. Once seeds germinate, expect the plant to take several years to produce flowers. The two more effective methods of propagation are cuttings and plant division.
This is the simplest and typically the most effective way to propagate firecracker plants. It takes about 2-3 weeks for cuttings to root.
- Choose a stem with leaves near the top and take a 6” cutting just below a node.
- Strip the leaves from the bottom 1” of the cutting and dip the end into rooting hormone to expedite the rooting process.
- Place the cutting, cut end down, into moist potting soil, leaving about half of the cutting half buried above the soil.
- Place your pot containing the cutting in a warm location that gets bright, indirect sunlight.
- Keep the soil moist but not soggy for 2-3 weeks while roots develop. You can place the bag inside a plastic bag to help the soil retain moisture. You can also use a plastic dome, which serves the same purpose and won’t collapse onto your young cutting.
- It will take 2-3 weeks for roots to form, but wait until you see some new growth before transplanting your new plants.
Firecracker plants can also be propagated by root division. Do this in the spring, in conjunction with transplanting or thinning out the parent plant. This will give the division the longest period of growth before it enters dormancy in the following winter.
- Water the plant well the day before you will be making your divisions. This will soften the roots and make them more flexible and less vulnerable to stress.
- Remove the plant from its container or expose a portion of the roots if planted in the ground.
- Use a sharp tool to cut portions of the root ball. A Hori Hori knife is very useful for this process.
- Plant your divisions in individual pots with fresh potting mix and water thoroughly.
The ideal time to plant firecracker plants is during their winter dormancy. Nearing the end of winter is best, leaving a few weeks before the plant re-enters its growing phase. Consider the space you choose wisely; this is not a neat and tidy plant. The nature of the plant makes it well suited to a cottage garden or pollinator garden.
Consider the final size of the plant, which can be up to 6’ tall and 5’ wide at maturity. The plant can be kept to about 3’x3’ and still be attractive, but cutting it back farther than this is not advised. This plant needs room to spread out to look its best.
Firecracker plants do quite well in containers, which is great news for anyone outside a subtropical or tropical climate zone. The roots are hardy to 24°F, but the rest of the plant will die back below freezing, so growing this plant in a pot enables the gardener to move it indoors during the colder months.
This plant is well suited to hanging pots because of its weeping nature. It can also be grown in a standard pot and prefers to be slightly root-bound.
Keeping the roots pot-bound will stress the plant slightly, which causes it to bloom more profusely in the spring. Ensure your container has proper drainage, as firecracker plants don’t like soggy roots and are fairly resilient in low moisture conditions.
If you are growing your firecracker plant indoors, give it as much light as possible. Placing your plant in a south-facing window will result in the best growth and flowering.
It can survive in partial sun but will flower less. Taking your plant outdoors in late spring will result in denser foliage. Allow your plant some time to adapt to outdoor life by initially placing it in partial shade before moving it to full sun.
Outdoors, this plant can tolerate various sunlight conditions, from full sun to partial shade. In their native habitat, these plants typically grow in the full sunlight of open fields and at the forest edge in partial shade.
For potted firecracker plants, standard potting soil will suffice. Amending the soil with perlite or coarse sand will help maintain proper drainage and keep the soil from compacting. Heavy or compacted soil will inhibit root development.
Ideally, the best soil conditions for firecracker plants outdoors are rich, organic, and well-drained. They tolerate a wide range of soil types, including loam, clay, and sand, though soil that compacts easily should be amended to make it more hospitable for root development.
Firecracker plants are not picky about soil pH and can tolerate a wide range of acidic to alkaline soil types. Amending the top layer of your soil with compost or other organic material will give your plants a healthy start.
When first planted, your firecracker plant must be regularly watered until established. For young plants, water once per week, deeply, to encourage root development and establishment. You may need to water more frequently in the hot summer, but generally, allow the soil surface to dry out between waterings.
Once mature, your firecracker plant will be drought-tolerant and only need occasional watering during prolonged dry weather. When watering, water deeply, ensuring the entire root system gets a good soaking.
Because container plants have significantly less soil to hold moisture for their roots to absorb, plants in pots are likely to need more frequent watering. The temperature and time of year factor in the frequency of watering a potted firecracker plant. Generally, the top 1” of the soil should be dry between waterings, but the soil around the roots should not be allowed to dry out completely.
Climate and Temperature
A wide range of temperatures is not a problem for this plant as long as freezing weather is avoided. These plants like a lot of heat, but they can also surprisingly tolerate cooler weather. They actually do need a period of cooler temperatures during their dormancy.
Firecracker plants perform best when they have a cool autumn and winter dormancy. This period will encourage the setting of buds and make for a better spring bloom. While these plants are supposed to be root hardy to 24°F, the foliage will begin to suffer below 41°F and die off in freezing weather.
This is a tropical plant, so it needs a bit of humidity to maintain healthy foliage. Firecracker plants can survive indoors if the humidity level remains around 40%; lower than this, you will see leaves begin to dry out and fall off. You can supplement humidity with a pebble tray or humidifier or by misting your plant every few days.
Because it is a heavy bloomer, the firecracker plant is also a heavy feeder. It needs a fair amount of nutrients to produce the maximum amount of flowers. For this reason, amend the soil before planting and add a layer of compost each year to reduce the amount of fertilizing needed to keep it blooming.
Use a balanced fertilizer to feed your firecracker plant to maintain optimal foliage growth, density, and blooming power. Feed your firecracker plant every two weeks during the active growing/blooming season.
When the plant stops blooming in the fall, reduce fertilizing to once per month. The plant cannot use as many nutrients during dormancy, and excess nutrients will damage the roots.
Maintenance and Care
Firecracker plants need a moderate amount of work to balance form and function. Because of the irregular growth of branches, this will never be a neatly manicured plant. To attempt to train this plant into a very organized and neatly balanced shape would be an exercise in futility.
However, pruning is recommended at the end of the blooming season, as the plant blooms on new growth in the spring. Prune and cut the plant back by about half while it’s dormant. This will encourage branching in the spring and make for a better blooming season.
Deadheading will make the plant bloom more, but the size and sheer quantity of the flowers make this an arduous process. Rather than deadheading, give the plant a light crown pruning when blooming starts to slow to encourage more flowers later in the season. You can also periodically prune away crossing branches to allow air circulation to the plant’s interior and maintain a more balanced appearance.
|botanical name Russelia equisetiformis ‘Salmon Pink’|
|sun requirements Full sun to partial shade|
|hardiness zones 9-11|
The ‘Salmon Pink’ variety is a larger cultivar that grows to about 5’ tall. It also has a pronounced weeping habit. The graceful branches will drape nicely as they grow longer, making this a nice hanging plant, ground, or sprawling shrub.
This variety produces flowers that are coral or salmon colored, giving an extra pop to the garden. A hummingbird favorite.
|botanical name Russelia equisetiformis lutea|
|sun requirements Full sun to partial shade|
|hardiness zones 8-11|
‘Lemon Falls’ is a medium-sized variety, growing as tall as 4’ at maturity. This makes it well-suited for use as a small shrub.
The spread will typically be close to 5’. This cultivar produces plenty of creamy, pale yellow flowers and looks amazing when paired with a variety that produces red flowers for contrast.
|botanical name Russelia equisetiformis ‘Tangerine Falls’|
|sun requirements Full sun to partial shade|
|hardiness zones 9-11|
‘Tangerine Falls’ might be my favorite variety of firecracker plants. It is a mid-sized plant with a sprawling habit that makes it great for a hanging basket or trailing over a rock wall.
The flowers form dense clusters, and shades vary on a single plant, from barely apricot to nearly coral. The combination of shades adds depth and interest to this enchanting plant.
St. Elmo’s Firecracker
|botanical name Russelia equitiformis ‘St. Elmo’s Firecracker’|
|sun requirements Full sun to partial shade|
|hardiness zones 8-10|
With such a fun name, this is a happy and cheerful hybrid variety with stunning crimson flowers contrasting beautifully with the fine, green foliage. It is on the larger side with less density to the foliage, giving it a feathery appearance. It is more tolerant of cool weather than some varieties, but the foliage will still die back in freezing weather.
Pests and Diseases
Firecracker plant is typically resistant to pest and disease problems. Pay attention if your otherwise healthy plant looks less than happy to determine the underlying issue.
Any time you notice an infestation or disease, isolate your potted plant for treatment to prevent spread. This is not possible for in-ground plants, but expedient treatment can stem the spread. Most pests and diseases find their way into our gardens on new plants, so thoroughly inspect them before planting in the garden.
These tiny mites have characteristics similar to spiders, including the fine webbing that they spin underneath leaves and between stems of plants. They damage plants by piercing leaves with their mouthparts and sucking sap and nutrients from the plant. They are tiny, so identifying them is best done by locating their webbing.
To eradicate spider mites, give the plant a thorough hosing off several times a week for a few weeks. This can knock down a significant amount of the population. Other treatment options include insecticidal soaps or horticultural oils. Use these measures with caution and check for the presence of pollinators first.
Most of the time, when you see caterpillars on plants, the instinct is to run them off as quickly as possible. Caterpillars can decimate the foliage of a smaller plant in a very short time. However, many caterpillars are butterfly larvae, so I always find it easier to cope with the damage to preserve the butterfly.
The firecracker plant has a special relationship with the common buckeye butterfly. The common buckeye lays its eggs on the plant, and when the larvae hatch, they feed on its flowers and foliage.
If you want more butterflies, let the caterpillars feed on your plant. You can always plant more!
These white, waxy little beasts are never beneficial; for many gardeners, they are a source of great loss. Mealybugs are small white insects with a waxy coating that makes them appear fuzzy. They feed on the sap of plants, depleting the plant of nutrients, stunting its growth, and leaving behind a nasty, sticky mess.
The sticky excrement left behind by these pests is called honeydew. It is sugary and attracts ants, which aren’t terribly harmful to outdoor plants. However, it also provides a perfect environment for sooty mold to grow, which interferes with photosynthesis. These guys have got to go!
Treat by spraying the plant with a hose, knocking off as many mealybugs as possible. Then, treat with neem oil or a chemical insecticide. You may need to treat again in 7-14 days to catch any hatching eggs.
Thrips are tiny flying insects that also feed on the sap of plants and leave a sticky mess behind. They will deprive the plant of nutrients and can cause shriveling or stunted growth. Treat them as you would mealybugs by spraying down the plant and applying an insecticide.
Root rot is usually the result of poor drainage or overwatering. Firecracker plant likes moisture, but it won’t tolerate wet roots. When the roots remain wet for extended periods, the roots begin to decay and break down and can no longer transport water and nutrients to the foliage.
This lack of water and nutrients manifests in yellowing foliage, particularly near the plant’s crown, and ultimately, whole plant death. While there’s no cure for root rot, you can catch it early and change your habits fast. If potted, repot your plant, letting the roots dry out and treating with fungicide before repotting in new soil.
Poor drainage contributes to root rot, though this is less likely to occur with in-ground plants. You can attempt to amend the soil and increase drainage, but that is usually not a long-term solution. Relocating the plant to a better site will result in faster improvement.
With a name like firecracker, you know this is a fun and exciting plant. Adding one of these lovely shrubs to the garden will increase the color and textural interest greatly. Its easygoing nature and resistance to pests and diseases make this a great addition to the garden or houseplant collection.