Cigar Plant Growing, Facts, Care & Benefits (Cuphea ignea)

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Cuphea ignea with red, white, and black flowers
Cigar (Firecracker) Plant Picture. Photo by C T Johansson [CC BY-SA]
Cigar Plant, otherwise known as Firecracker, belongs to the genus Cuphea, the largest genus within the family Lythraceae. With small, tubular red-orange flowers that are black and white on the tips of the petals, it’s no mystery why this plant is commonly referred to as cigar plant or firecracker plant, as it resembles a lit cigar or firecracker when flowering.

Native to Mexico and the West Indies, cigar plant has become a popular garden plant in temperate regions of the U.S. and Europe. In the U.K., it has been given the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, making it a reliable and highly sought after garden plant.

Common names are flawed and misleading, however, leading some to mistake this shrub for another species also commonly called firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis) that is native to the southern United States and Mexico. They do look quite similar, though Russelia equisetiformis is a coastal plant with flowers that, while red, lack black and white petal tips, has much more slender leaves than that of Cuphea ignea, and thin stems that resemble that of asparagus.

Facts, Benefits & Uses of Cigar Plant (Firecracker Plant)

Cuphea ignea is of particular importance to butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds, which are able to easily navigate the plant’s long corolla to reach the sweet nectar inside. Gardeners have found that cigar plant is a particular favorite of hummingbirds, with multiple individuals and, depending on your area, species buzzing about the plant at the same time. In addition, deer, rabbits, and other foragers don’t seem to find it particularly palatable.

Cigar plant is disease and pest resistant, and studies have found that it may be useful in agricultural fields to deter corn rootworms and other pests. The sticky foliage makes the plants inhospitable to both pest adults and larvae, thus disrupting their lifecycle in crop fields and leading to greater yields.

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Cigar Plant Fact Sheet:
Herbaceous terrestrial perennial (can be evergreen in some regions)
USDA 9-12
Full sun, partial shade
May-August, or year round if in zone 9 or above
Height up to 61 cm (24 in), spread up to 91 cm (36 in)
Seeds: gently press into soil surface; Cuttings: 2-3 inches
pH 5.6-8.5

Cigar Plant Growth, Hardiness & Climate

Cigar plant blooming in its native country Mexico
Photo by Tubifex [Public domain]

Cigar plant is known to grow quickly, but can be trimmed back to obtain the desired size and shape. It does best in moist soils, but is somewhat drought tolerant. Frost will kill the plant down to its roots, but it will resprout the following spring or whenever conditions are consistently warm and, preferably, humid.

Zones 9 and above are ideal, as this is naturally a tropical plant, but it can grow in lower zones, though, again, it will die back once winter hits. Full sun is best for this plant, though some shade is acceptable so long as it gets at least 6 hours of sun per day.

How to Plant Cigar Plant In Ponds

Cigar plant in bloom near a pond
Photo by Kurt Stüber [1] [CC BY-SA]

If planting from seed, you only need to gently push the seed into the surface of the soil, just far enough that some wind or rain won’t easily remove it. If planting a cutting or already rooted plant, place in two to three inches of soil, or deep enough to cover the roots and about an inch or so of the stem.

Cigar plant prefers damp soil, and so should be planted along the moist pond margins rather than in the water itself. Planting directly in water will likely result in root rot and, ultimately, plant death. Substrate is not required for planting, unless the soil is loose (as in the case of sand-type soils) and won’t hold the plant well. In this case, dig down several inches, add a thin layer of gravel or other similar substrate to help hold the plant’s roots in place, and then cover with the rest of the soil.

How to Care For & Maintain Cigar Plant

Many cuphea ignea plants blooming with red, white, and black flowers
Photo by Density [CC BY-SA]

As mentioned above, cigar plant can grow quickly and so may need to be trimmed back from time to time. If you’d like to plant cuttings after trimming, dip the cut ends in rooting powder or rooting hormone, place them in pots, water just enough to dampen the soil, and keep them in shade for the first several days to prevent overstressing the plants as they adjust and develop roots. Soil should be kept consistently damp, but not saturated. To check this, dip your finger into the soil – the top inch of soil can be dry, but below that should feel moist.

Depending on where you live, cigar plant may flower year round. Be sure to clean any dead or fallen flowers and leaves from your pond to maintain healthy water quality. In addition, many birds and insects are likely to visit these attractive, nectar-rich flowers, so you will need to keep an eye out for bird droppings and dead insects in your pond. Your fish can likely eat most insects without issue, but be sure to clear away any excess.

How to Winter Cigar Plant In Ponds

Cigar plant will only need to be overwintered if you live in an area where frost occurs. You can either allow the plant to die down and resprout the following spring, you can trim it and transfer the cuttings indoors, or you can dig it up entirely and place it in an indoor pot or hanging basket. For very large plants, the first two options may be easiest.

The second option will still result in the roots generating new plant growth the following warm season, but this way you can add some new plants if desired since firecracker plant can be somewhat difficult to come by depending on where you live.

Is Cigar Plant Toxic, Poisonous or Invasive?

Non-toxic cigar plant with flowers
Photo by C T Johansson [CC BY-SA]

Cigar plant is not known to be toxic to humans, fish, dogs, or any other animals. In fact, its oils can be used in cooking, though this can prove to be difficult due to small seeds and slippery seed pods that literally eject seeds rather than simply dropping them. Some studies have found that cuphea ignea extract may prove useful in treating ulcers.

Native to Mexico and the West Indies, cigar plant is non-native to the United States, Europe, and anywhere other than its native range. However, it has become somewhat naturalized in southern Florida and Hawaii. Though limited information is available, it seems that cuphea ignea is generally viewed positively in Florida, but is monitored and somewhat controlled (trimmed back to prevent overgrowth into natural areas) in Hawaii.

The only place where it is considered definitely invasive is the tropical island of La Reunion, where it has overtaken much of the native foliage and damaged ecosystems, thus decreasing biodiversity and ecosystem function as natural food sources for animals and insects are lost. Nevertheless, if you live outside of Mexico or the Indies, but sure to check with any nearby environmental agencies to see if it is legal for you to own cigar plants. Regardless, if you live outside of its native range, make sure that you keep all firecracker plants trimmed and properly dispose of any cuttings and seeds to prevent its spread into natural areas.

Is Cigar Plant Plant Edible? Will Fish Eat it?

Cigar plant is considered edible, with the oils from the seeds sometimes being used for cooking. While your fish are unlikely to eat the leaves and seeds, if they do it shouldn’t hurt them as the plant is non-toxic. Nevertheless, do try to keep your pond as clear of debris as possible to ensure healthy water quality and fish.

Where to Buy Cigar Plants & Seeds? (UK & US)

Cigar plant can be a bit difficult to obtain as it isn’t readily available at most nurseries, but can be found either online or at select specialized nurseries. In more temperate regions and in the U.K. where it’s a popular award-winning plant, it may be easier to obtain.

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