Backyard Nature Wednesday: Firespike (Odontonema strictum)

Firespike in my backyard garden today.
Odontonema strictum, popularly called firespike or cardinal guard or scarlet flame, is a showy shrub-like plant that is native to semi-forested areas in Central America, but it will grow happily in USDA Zones 8 - 11. It seems content in my zone 9a garden near Houston.

That wasn't always true though. I bought my plant in spring 2012 and at first I had positioned it in full sun, which, according to the planting instructions I read, it should have been able to tolerate. The first year that it grew there, it grew to perhaps two to two-and-a-half feet tall and it did have a few blooms. In the winter, it died back to the ground but came back in the spring; however, it seemed stunted and unhappy and it never bloomed that year. I decided drastic action was needed.

It died back to the ground last winter, but in the spring, as soon as I was sure it had survived, I decided to move it to another location. I planted it in a large pot and moved the pot to an area that was mostly dappled shade all day with some late afternoon sun. My idea was that if the plant didn't seem to be happy there, I could always move the pot elsewhere. I needn't have worried - the plant loved it!

My firespike has grown to about four feet this year and has healthy shiny dark green leaves. It is a multi-stemmed plant and every stem now sports one of the red "spikes" that are loved by hummingbirds and butterflies.

These tubular blossoms open in autumn just as the migrating hummingbirds are passing through.
It really is a strikingly beautiful plant that brightens our autumn landscapes. It is said to work well in mixed shrub borders and I may try to find such a spot for it in my garden in the future. As long as the area is mostly shady, I think it might be happy in the ground. The hot Southeast Texas sun is just too intense for it as a steady diet.

The plant does spread by underground sprouting, so, if it is happy, it could enlarge to create a thicket effect. I can't imagine many things more beautiful in the fall than a thicket with those long-lasting scarlet "spikes" waving in the breeze.

If you live in USDA zones 8 -11 and have not grown firespike, try it. I think you'll like it.


  1. Nice feature Dorothy. It would be considered tropical here but it is lovely and the hummingbirds must love it!

  2. It looks beautiful Dorothy. I'm glad you persevered and found a good spot for it.

    1. So am I. It's a lovely plant. It's not at all unusual for me to have to move my plants around - sometimes more than once - in order to find where they are happy.


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