A Gardening Journal

Must Have: Giant Cigar Bush

Cuphea micropetala Geranium Occold Shield closer Chornyei 092514 640

 

Last Summer, I planted one of many large pots by a client's pool with what I still think is a winning combination: Pelargonium 'Occold' and Cuphea micropetala. These two sunlovers share such similar coloring: The solid carmine of the geranium's petals picks out just one of the countless gradations of red-orange-yellow-green of the Cuphea flowers. So do the geranium's bright but only subtly-variegated leaves.

 

All the Cuphea shades that were outside the geranium's narrrow range—the forest green of the foliage, the red-burgundy of the stems, the white sparkles of the flowers' stamens and (look closely in the picture below) hairs on the petals' outer surface—provided gentle reinforcement to the prevailing "hot" scheme. 

 

Cuphea micropetala Geranium Occold Shield closer still Chornyei 092514 640

 

At close range, the tubular Cuphea flowers put out a fiery vibe. Common names such as cigar plant and giant firecracker plant seem à propos. Add in the the plant's relative rarity in seasonal containers here in New England, and you'd think that Cuphea micropetala would be the focus from any vantage.

 

From only a few feet away, the plant's willowy leaves and its flowers' lively colors and array in spikes still trump the eager display of what is, after all, just a geranium—although 'Occold' is certainly one of the sophisticates.

 

Cuphea micropetala Geranium Occold Shield medium Chornyei 092514 640

 

From farther still, the tipping point is reached. The complex colors of the Cuphea flowers are less and less discernible; the deep green of the leaves combines with their long and narrow shape to seem, at least texturally, like a continuation of the flowers. In a larger context, then, this otherwise exciting plant loses its fiery nature and becomes well-behaved filler. The details of Pelargonium 'Occold' were larger as well as simpler: The small single-color flowers merge into round blobs, and the slight darker variegation of the leaves plays just a quiet ostinato beneath the bright acid-green notes that are the majority of the leaf blades.

 

Cuphea micropetala Geranium Occold Shield other containers Chornyei 092514 640

 

Instead of the geranium's providing welcome lower cushioning—a living display pillow, as it were—for the Cuphea, the Cuphea is more and more just merry sparkles above the geranium: radial beams from the geranium's sun. 

 

In the picture below, the view from the other end of the pool—about fifty feet away. The geranium is still more prominent than the cigar bush. But in truth, nothing short of, say, a fifteen-foot Abyssinian banana could take your gaze away for long from the huge weeping blue cedar.

 

When I was first called to this property, oh, twenty years ago, this Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula' was weeping out onto the front parking area, taking up one or two cars-worth in the process. As part of the overall project, the cedar was balled and burlapped, then transported back to the far end of the swimming pool. At the height of Summer, the chaises are nosed back under the dappled shade of the cedar's arching limbs.

 

Chornyei back pool terrace display overall 092514 640

 

At my visit—just a week or so before last October's first killing frost—the pool had already been covered and the furniture was awaiting my removal of the containers before being stowed. Then the cedar and its backing hedge of tall boxwood are left in peace, to command the scene until next May.

 

Here's how to grow this easy perennial:

 

 

Latin Name

Cuphea micropetala, also known as Cuphea melvilla

Common Names

Mexican giant cigar plant, giant cigar plant, tall cigar plant, candy corn plant

Family

Lythraceae, the Loosestrife (and Lythrum and Crape Myrtle and Pomegranate) family.

What kind of plant is it?

Rhizomatous woody perennial that also succeeds beautifully as a cutting-grown annual.

Hardiness

Zones 7b - 10b. Cuphea micropetala is the hardiest species of Cuphea, succeeding as a returning perennial as far north as southeastern Virginia.

Habit

Multi-stemmed and upright, forming slowly-spreading colonies where hardy. Cuphea micropetala is not mounding: The stems all strive to grow upright, leaning outward (gracefully) only when colonies become full. New stems from the rhizomes grow upright as best they can and, so, expand the colony without really filling it in at the bottom. In frost-free climates where this species can remain evergreen and floriferous year-round, colonies can become leggy. See the first "How to handle it" box, below.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

A clump three to four feet tall and, usually, a bit less in width. When used as a cutting-grown annual, potentially as big in just one season, but more often about two feet tall. See "Plant Partners" and the first "How to handle it" boxes, below, for how to use Cuphea micropetala as an annual without its tendency to legginess becoming a problem. 

Texture

Thanks to its multi-stemmed habit, and dense narrow, shiny, pointed leaves, Cuphea micropetala has the texture of a shrubby willow—albeit one whose every branch is tipped with exciting flowers.

Grown for

its flowers: As is typical for Cuphea, the petals of C. micropetala are shaped into narrow tubes, with glad-to-meet-you protruding pistils and stamens. Short hairs tipped in white stud the tube's outer surface, giving the flowers a peculiar combination of sticky glandularity (yuck!) and sparkling cleanliness (hooray!). But the petals' coloring is the real excitement. New flowers are orangey-red at the base, greenish-white in the middle, and greenish yellow at the top. As they mature, they become a more-or-less solid red. The transition is individualistic, flower to flower, with none of the orderly mass choreography of the flower spikes of, say, Kniphofia, where hundreds of blooms progress through a given cycle of colors in strict accordance with their relative position on the spike: Newest flowers at the top are one color, middle-aged flowers mid-spike are another, and expired flowers at the bottom a third. By contrast, the color scheme of Cuphea micropetala is confetti-like, which is why its floral display doesn't have more impact from a distance. From another perspec-tive, the display also doesn't have the garish obviousness that, to some eyes, is the curse of death for most forms of Kniphofia.

 

its endurance and enthusiasm: Whether as an annual or as an evergreen perennial, Cuphea micropetala can be in flower most or even all the time when grown in heat and with sufficient moisture. Conversely, when grown as a returning perennial at the cold end of its hardiness range (Zone 7 and probably 8), flowering doesn't begin until late Summer or even early Fall. Then the floral display is welcomed as a late-season surprise—a bonus that, handily, also harmonizes beautifully with the palette of Fall foliage.

 

its flowers' appeal to hummingbirds: As is typical for the genus, humming-birds are driven wild by the flowers of Cuphea micropetala. The plant is usually rated as one of the best for attracting them.

 

its ease of culture: Staking, dividing, and deadheading are not necessary. You might clip off expired bloom spikes and, every other year or so in subtropical and tropical climates, cut colonies to the ground to renew them.

Flowering season

When growing in subtropical to tropical climates with minimal variance through the year, Cuphea micropetala can be in flower year-round. In climates with larger changes in temperature, even though they may will be frost-free, flowering is usually limited to late Summer and Fall. (This is the experience, for example, of a major grower near Santa Barbara, CA.) The species behaves the same way in Zone 7 and 8, when frosts can be severe enough to kill stems to the base or even to the roots. There (in tidewater Virginia and south, say), this species grows as a returning perennial, and also doesn't begin flowering until late Summer or early Fall. When used as a cutting-grown annual for Summer-to-frost display, Cuphea micropetala experiences the same warm and frost-free climate as in its native haunts in Mexico. And so it behaves similarly, by flowering non-stop.

Color combinations

When in flower, Cuphea micropetala combines well with colors from yellow to orange to red to burgundy to ebony—plus shades of green. Conversely, it would be scary, indeed, near pink, blue, or purple. Out of flower, there are still the quietly colorful red stems   

Plant partner

Many plants look great in the company of Cuphea micropetala. Its vertical stems, willowy leaves, colorful flowers, and habit each bring opportunities as well as caveats. The best strategy is targeted contrast: Take advantage of the distinctive points and limitations of this species to create interactions that are complementary as well as contrasting. Across-the-board contrasts are likely to veer toward chaos, not still-greater excitement.

 

Overall, the multi-colored pointillism of the flowers provides the biggest caution. Right in themselves, they already contain more than enough contrast in hue as well as pattern. Choose neighbors with much more limited palettes, and ones that center clearly on just one or two of the yellow, orange, and red shades of the Cuphea flowers. The more complementary their coloring, the more welcome will be other contrasts in texture and scale.

 

Similarly, in its neighborhood this Cuphea will always be the "category killer" for tubular flowers, spikes of flowers, and flowers of only small to medium size. Choose partners that—if they flower at all—do so via blooms that are, variously, round-shaped, large, or arrayed in clusters that are round or flat or both.

 

The same goes for foliage: Cuphea rings the bell named Dark Green Willowy Leaves loudly enough already. Choose neighbors whose leaves can be rounded, large, tiny, ferny, strappy, or palmate—and in colors that are clearly not dark green.

 

Overall, then, have nearby plants make one specific nod of assent in terms of color—a ritual bow, as it were, to the god of the hot palette—then another to the god of confetti-like patterns. Then let those plants go to town, blaring trumpets all the while, in terms of contrasting textures and scale. Here are some possibilities, some of which are in the pictures above: Abelmoschus manihot, Abutilon 'Souvenir de Bonn', Beschorneria 'Flamingo Glow', Canna 'Pacific Beauty', Coleus 'Garnet Robe', Dyckia fosteriana 'Cherry Cola', Euphorbia cotinifolia, Farfugium japonicum 'Giganteum', Hibiscus acetosella, Jatropha integerrima, Mirabilis dichotoma (not M. jalapa 'Limelight' in my link, whose flowers are a strongly-clashing pink), Oxalis 'Zinfandel', and Pelargonium 'Occold' (not the 'Persian Queen' in my link; like Mirabilis 'Limelight', its flowers are hot pink). For Abutilon, Canna, Coleus, Mirabilis, and Pelargonium, there are many suitable cultivars to choose among.

Where to use it in your garden

This species' texture, habit, and scale give it a shrubby look, similar in size to that of much hardier herbaceous plants like Paeonia lactiflora and Amsonia hubrichtii. For all of the color and complexity of Cuphea micropetala flowers—let alone their profusion and array in tall spikes—the floral display is surprisingly muted from any distance. (Look again at the "group shot" above, which was taken from the far side of a swimming pool. The two variegated geraniums, Hibiscus acetosella, and purple-leaved coleus are far more prominent.)

 

Giant cigar plant is so self-reliant that it can be used more as a structural plant—a filler at the back of shorter and flashier plants, or a nicely-textured groundcover at the front of larger shrubs—than as a flowering ornamental. If your priority is to maximize the impact of its flowers, locate this species fairly close to the edge of its bed—or in a container—so that the blooms' pigment patterns, plus their relation to the deep-red stems, can be appreciated in detail.  

Culture

Full sun in all but the hottest climates, where dappled sun or mid-day shade are welcome. Moisture-retentive soil is always the right choice. Cuphea micropetala thrives even in moist soil where hardy; in Mexico, it is reported as growing by streams and ponds in addition to locations with normal moisture. The species is only moderately drought-tolerant, and can lose its lower leaves in response. It's better to provide sufficient moisture; see the second "How to Handle it," below, for what to do when you didn't.

How to handle it: The Basics

When growing in-ground where it's hardy only as a returning perennial, plant Cuphea micropetala only in Spring. If planting in a group, take into account the species' typical spread of two to three feet, and space accordingly. As is the case almost universally when growing plants at the limits of their hardiness, it's wiser to ensure excellent drainage in Winter even if this means that you need to supply more water in Summer. Stems will shed their leaves as Fall slides into Winter; don't cut these dead stems down until Spring, just before new growth emerges from the stem bases or directly from the rhizomes of the colony. Cuphea micropetala is slow to wake in Spring, so there's no rush for this tidying. 

 

When growing Cuphea micropetala in warm subtropics or tropics, planting can be done at almost any time. Ensure enough water for establishment. This species behaves (and looks) like an evergreen shrub in these climates, and tends to flower in waves. You may want to cut off the flowering portions of the stems after each wave has passed, which will encourage side shoots, which will also bear flowers, plus keep the colony's overall profile a bit lower. Even so, many stems will have grown to their maximum height, and also shed many of the leaves along their bottom portions. Renew the colony by cutting all stems down to nubs every other year or so. Do this before or as a new flush of stems is forming so that emerging growth will be as eager as possible. In such mild climates, clumps are likely to display their most vigorous degree of rhizomatous expansion. Even so, this species spreads only gradually; it is not a romper, let alone an invader. Planting in groups? You could space starter plants every three feet, but two feet will give solid coverage sooner.

 

When used as an annual, plant in Spring after danger of frost is past. Formative pruning isn't usually needed. If using Cuphea micropetala in a mixed planting—as in a large container, for example—plant as a soloist, where the stems can poke up through lower-growing neighbors as vertical accents. Even if only three or four stems develop over the season, that will be enough. Otherwise, plant in groups of three or more, spaced six or eight inches apart, so that you achieve a satisfying top-to-bottom mass from the get-go. Where the growing season might be only from mid-May to late September, there isn't time for a single plant to produce enough additional shoots. And it certainly won't have time to form additional shoots via rhizomes. In the large container in my pictures, such instant fullness was necessary: I used five each of Cuphea and Pelargonium. Clip off the flowering portion of a stem after its blooms are through; side shoots will develop from the leafy portion below. If the season is hot and long enough, they'll flower, too.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

Cuphea micropetala prefers decent moisture; especially when growing it in containers, take care not to subject the plant to drought stress. Add "Soil Moist" granules to the potting soil so that there's more forgiveness between waterings when the weather is at its hottest. Use the largest container you can, too, not a shallow window box or a table-top-sized pot. Consider placing your container of Cuphea in back of ones with lower plants, so that there's coverage even if the Cuphea stems do drop their lower leaves. If worse comes to worst and an unacceptable amount of leaf-drop is your reality, then cut just a few of the stems at a time down to six or eight inches. The remaining stems will provide some cover while the cut ones resprout—and also keep the floral display going. A few weeks later, cut down another group of stems, etc. The first round of resprouts will at least provide fill-in for the remaining stems, and (crossing fingers) about the time that you're clipping the last group of bandy-legged stems back, the first will already be showing some flower buds.

 

If your container is truly large (as mine was, at nearly twenty inches across at the rim), plant a failsafe filler plant in the same container. My choice was Pelargonium 'Occold'.

Quirks and special cases

Although the "giant" of this cigar plant refers to its overall size, this is usually a later realization, before which the adjective seems confusing thrice-over. First, the latin name for this giant species of cigar plant is "micropetala": the big cuphea with the tiny petals? Cuphea flowers are typically tubular, but the petals of many extend themselves into colorful and, comparatively, large lobes. (See the all-too-aptly-named batface cuphea in "Variants," below.) And though flowers of Cuphea micropetala are some of the largest of any Cuphea and so, second, possibly inspire the "giant," they don't have such lobes and are, therefore, smaller than they might otherwise have been. "Micro" seems a stretch, true.

 

Third, while the tubular shape of the flowers and their fiery coloring could suggest a cigarette if you squint, a cigar would be probable only to those who have never seen one. If the petals were tan, with a red base, just maybe—but a giant cigar? Oh, for a common name that's catchy as well as clear.  

Downsides

None.

Variants

Despite its widespread use, only one variant has been identified: Cuphea x 'David Verity' is believed to be a spontaneous hybrid of C. micropetala and C. ignea, and originated in Los Angeles. It combines the longer flowering season of C. ignea (Z 10-12) with the larger habit and flowers of C. micro-petala (Z 7-10). It has intermediate hardiness, to Z 8. In my experience, when C. micropetala is used as a cutting-grown annual, it flowers from early Summer through frost anyway. Young plants are usually already in bud or even flower at the nursery. So the longer flowering season of 'David Verity' isn't in itself an advantage when it's also used as an annual. But where C. micropetala is hardy as a returning perennial, it is reported as starting into flower only in late Summer; C. ignea flowers mainly from Spring through Fall in subtropical Florida, and can be everblooming in the tropics. Where 'David Verity' is also hardy, then, its comparatively long season of bloom is a plus. That said, while the hot-orange flowers are showy, they lack the multi-colorful habits of those of C. micropetala, so aren't as interesting at close range. All in all, 'David Verity' might not seem an improvement: It has more of the always-in-flower constancy of, say, an impatiens—but at the expense of the ever-changing floral detailing of C. micropetala

 

Some other forms of Cuphea are also garden-worthy. The most widely-grown, Cuphea ignea and Cuphea hyssopifolia, suffer from overexposure. Their low tidy habits give them the impact and usage similar to heather or dwarf boxwood. The dark purple flowers of Cuphea llavea (say "KOO-fee-uh YA-vee-uh") each have a pair of bright red lobes at 2 and 10 o'clock; the common name of batface is right on. Site this species as a diminutive specimen where its humorous flowers can be appreciated in detail. (This Summer, I might feature a pot of it on the stone-topped sideboard on my terrace.) Flowers of Cuphea cyanea 'Caribbean Sunset' are burnt orange.

 

All of these forms are much smaller than C. micropetala, with mature heights from a foot or lower to only two feet. At three to four feet, "giant" cigar plant really is the big boy of the crowd.

Availability

On-line and at retailers.

Propagation

By cuttings. Cuphea micropetala grows quickly so, where it is hardy, there's little to be gained by dividing clumps. 

Native habitat

Cuphea micropetala is native to Mexico. There are over 250 species in the Cuphea genus, all of which are native to warm temperate to tropical regions of North and South America. 

 
 
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