Common names for plants (and other things) are very often descriptive in ways that can be quite informative. Firetail, firethorn, fireweed, firewheel tree, firecracker plant—what might they look like?
Firetail very accurately describes the outstanding feature of Acalypha pendula as well as its nearly look-alike relative, A. hispida. The latter is known as the chenille plant, and both have inflorescences surrounded by furry bracts that are tomato red. Chenille plant is larger, growing as a shrub to ten feet high by six feet wide, with long, drooping flower clusters that resemble floppy, overblown pipe cleaners. Firetail only grows to a few inches high and is perfectly suited to hanging in baskets or spilling over the edge of a mixed container.
Firethorn is a more general name for a number of species in the genus Pyracantha. These evergreen shrubs are somewhat old-fashioned, but no less useful in the landscape today. Their fire engine-red fruits are the source of their graphic moniker. Equally ornamental, however, are the large trusses of small white flowers that precede the red berries. Native to the Mediterranean and Asia, most of the current hybrids and selections are from just a few species: Pyracantha coccinea, P. crenatoserrata, and P. koidzumii. Growth forms range from ground covers to large, arching shrubs. Most are very drought tolerant and can be sheared into hedges or allowed the space to grow to their genetically programmed maximum shape. Choose one that fills the situation for best results. Oh, and beware of the thorns (also described in their name).
That clue holds true for fireweed, as well. Its flowers are pink-tinged red, but its habit is somewhat weedy. Epilobium angustifolium is native across North America (including Alaska, attesting to its vigor and staying power), where it grows as a perennial that also freely seeds itself. Before succumbing to its showy good looks, assess its potential impact on gardens both near and far.
So where is the wheel in firewheel tree? It’s in the shape of the inflorescence. This Australian native (Stenocarpus sinuatus) is an evergreen tree that tops out at less than 30 feet. It is quite modest, but handsome, with glossy green foliage. As a member of the protea family, its flowers are small and tubular and, in this case, arranged in one showy whorl and very brightly colored as the fire reference would suggest. The overall aspect is of vibrant red, but closer inspection reveals their yellow stamens.
Russelia equisetiformis, the firecracker plant, also has eye-popping red flowers. These narrowly tubular flowers are born in profusion at the end of bright green stems. These stems are numerous, but nearly leafless, giving it another reference as “equisetiformis,” which means it resembles equisetum, the horsetail plant. This ornamental forms a mound of these dainty stems up to several feet in height and as wide. Very useful as a hanging-basket plant, trailing over the edge of a wall, or as a flamboyant ground cover, it is a versatile plant that can add a spark of color in a sunny spot. Take a hint from the names of these plants, and add some fire to the garden.
Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.