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Plant Highlight: Russelia equisetiformis

September 2021

Russelia equisetiformis is a shrub native to Mexico and Guatemala, with stems that grow upward, then arch over and cascade downward at the tips. It attains a height of up to 5 feet (1.5 m), and it has a rounded shape when planted on level ground, but it will cascade down when planted atop a wall or a rocky slope. Although it has leaves, these are tiny and not evident from any distance, so its slender bright-green stems are on full display, giving it an appearance reminscent of rushes or horse-tails. Its name refers to this, since Equisetum is the genus of horse-tails, but the resemblance is only superficial. In fact, Russelia belongs to the Plantaginaceae (the Plantain Family), which is closely related to the Scrophulariaceae (known as the Figwort Family or the Snapdragon Family), in which it was formerly placed.

Two common names for Russelia equisetiformis are “firecracker plant” and “coral fountain”, and both of these refer to its prolific production of vivid red tubular flowers, which are about 1 to 1.2 inches long (2.5 to 3 cm) and flared at the mouth. Bright scarlet is the usual color, but pink, yellow, and white forms are also known. In places where temperatures drop down to near freezing in the winter, plants will stop flowering for a few months until things warm up in the spring, but in more tropical locations they will flower year-round. Plants will remain evergreen as long as the temperature does not dip too far below freezing, but even when a cold snap goes down to 25° (-4° C), the plant will re-sprout from the base and recover.

Russelia flowers best in a sunny position, but it can also succeed in the shade, although with a reduced output of flowers. Although this species is not highly drought tolerant, it can get by with moderate watering. It succeeds well when planted at the edge of a pond or watercourse.