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Firespike or Scarlet Flame • Ian

Firespike, Odontonema strictum, is also known as Cardinal Guard or Scarlet Flame. This native of Mexico and Central America likes to show off its strikingly beautiful crimson flowers and lush, shiny foliage and is very easy to grow.


Firespike, Odontonema strictum, is also known as Cardinal Guard or Scarlet Flame. This native of Mexico and Central America likes to show off its strikingly beautiful crimson flowers and lush, shiny foliage and is very easy to grow.

This attractive semi-tropical shrub will grow to4-6 feet (120-180 cm) tall in nature and about 3 feet (90 cm) in containers. In late summer and autumn it produces plumes of blood red, glossy spikes of flowers which almost look as if they are made of some sort of plastic. The individual flowers are about an inch long and two-lipped. The flower stalk is purplish-black, providing a vivid contrast. Firespike is very long flowering - for a period of several months - and is an irresistible addition to your garden. The blooms produce a sweet nectar that attracts bees and butterflies like magnets.

Firespike looks fabulous growing in a semi-shady position amongst bold foliage plants such as elephant's ears (Alocasia) and bird's nest ferns (Asplenium australasicum). It also associates well with other hot-coloured flowers which grow in a shaded spot, such as shrub and cane Begonia, Salvia miniata, Salvia splendens and bromeliads with red centres or red flower spikes.

Firespike is very all-round when it comes to placement. It prefers full sun or partial shade, but is one of the few flowering plants that will still have striking red blooms, even when grown in rather dense shade. It appreciates moist but well-drained soil, however, once it is established, it can tolerate all but the longest droughts.


Hardiness: In frost-free areas firespike grows as an evergreen semi-woody shrub. In colder areas it usually dies back to the ground in winter and resprouts in spring.

Propagation: Firespike is easy to propagate from softwood cuttings. It is sometimes possible (if you are lucky) to cut a branch and just stick it in the ground where you want a new plant. The cuttings you root in the spring should bloom by fall. I
t can also be propagated from seeds or by division.


Usage: The strikingly beautiful crimson flowers and glossy/shiny leaves of firespike brighten the fall landscape. For best effect, plant firespike as background plants in mass plantings in mixed-shrub borders, where it can rise above smaller plants in the foreground. The mass of the plant's foliage provides a good screen at the back of borders for the whole year round.

It will spread by underground sprouting, enlarging to form a thicket, but it is easy to control and keep contained. Plants can be spaced about 2 feet apart to fill in an area quickly. Firespike is a must-have in butterfly gardens and the bright red spikes always add welcome colour to a hot weather garden. All you have to do is give it a light sprinkling of a complete fertilizer each four to six weeks during the growing season.

It is a knockout in large, mixed containers, too. Under those conditions, a weekly dose of a liquid fertilizer will keep firespike looking its best for months. Pinch or prune back the shoot tips through early summer to encourage branching, compact growth and more flowers.

The lovely flowers also make firespike an excellent candidate for the cutting garden. The flowers make striking additions to cut-flower arrangements.

In the winter/early spring, you should cut the plant back to encourage branching and the production of new shoots. You can cut it back almost to the ground and it will come back beautifully.


Firespike belongs to the Acanthaceae family, which contains a large number of shrubby perennials suitable for our climate. It is a very low-maintenance plant with no pests or diseases of major concern. When you take one home for your landscape, you will be taking home a winner.

Marc Vijverberg


Marc Vijverberg and Gurli Jakobsen




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