Firecrackers in the garden

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Manettia cordifolia in the garden of Lyn Cox in Sydney

A plant that is attracting interest in my garden at present is a dainty climber called Manettia cordifolia (the firecracker vine), pictured at left in the garden of Lyn Cox in Sydney. It is a lightweight vine that twines around a support: in my case a metal obelisk. It has stunning and vibrant red-orange tubular flowers in summer and autumn, which smother the vine. I was only familiar with its cousin Manettia luteorubra (the Brazilian firecracker), with smaller red flowers tipped with yellow, until I encountered it in the garden of my friend last year.

Manettia cordifolia

The vine had been passed down from generation to generation in her family: it was originally brought home to her grandmother by her grandfather, who worked as a gardener in some grand Wahroonga properties in the Depression. Pieces were given to various relatives. An aunt grew it in Moree, and it flourished just as well there as in Sydney. It is completely herbaceous, dying down in winter then reappearing in spring. My friend grows it on a support in a large pot. It seems to grow best with an ample amount of sun. I was thrilled to be given a piece of the vine last year and am enjoying watching its flowers bloom and reflecting on the random twists of fate that have brought it into my garden - as with so many plants I have acquired over the years!

Russelia equisetiformis

I am growing it in a hot-coloured border with larger brightly coloured flowers such as Canna, Dahlia, Tithonia rotundifolia and Abutilon, but I have also added in a number of plants that have petite, red or orange tubular flowers very similar to that of the Manettia cordifolia, and in bloom at the same time, but which belong to totally different plant families. Funnily enough, I discovered that for several of these plants, their common name is also 'firecracker' - which seems to be the name given to any brightly coloured plant with a profusion of tubular flowers that look vaguely like a shower of sparks! The genus Manettia belongs to the Rubiaceae family of plants (which includes Gardenia, Pentas and Rondeletia). A plant from the family Plantaginaceae (which includes specimens such as Linaria, Rehmannia and Veronica) with a massed display of slender red-orange trumpet flowers is Russelia equisetiformis (ht 1-1.5 m, pictured above), a willowy, arching shrub ... sometimes called the firecracker plant. I have this growing in the hot-coloured border.

Ruellia brevifolia

Dicliptera sericea - sometimes apparently called the Uruguayan firecracker plant - also has long tubular flowers, though these are a more distinct orange hue. This is a tough, low-growing shrub (ht 60 cm) that is in bloom through the warmer months and will grow in sun or shade, though I have found it does best with more sun. It is from the Acanthaceae family of plants, as is the small shrub Ruellia brevifolia (ht 60 cm, pictured left) with uncannily similar flowers to my new Manettia. This Ruellia is something of a naughty weed, which pops up in many unexpected places in my garden, but it has an almost neon quality to its bright red-orange blooms, and obligingly grows in dense, dry shade. I pull up many of them but allow a number to remain, dotted through my hot-coloured border

Yet another plant with sparkling tubular flowers is Cuphea - often known as the cigar plant but also as Mexican firecracker! The common form has a reddish-orange elongated bloom with white and black tips, but I have an unusual species with paler orange flowers that I have growing beneath my Manettia cordifolia, forming an effective combination. It is Cuphea cyanea (pictured above) growing to about 60 cm and flowering over a long period from late spring to autumn. This species seems to have a number of different coloured forms. The genus Cuphea is from a different plant family again: the Lythraceae (which also includes Lagerstroemia, the crepe myrtle tree).

I am enjoying all these 'firecrackers' in my hot-coloured border at the moment, and wondering how such similar flowers come from such a diversity of plant families! Of course, to a botanist they have many different features but to me they provide a brilliance that pleases my eye, and grouping them together gives a coherence to my long border.