All around Austin these past few weeks, Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) is strutting its stuff. Sporting showy clusters of orange flowers, it’s quite a head-turner.
Gardeners grow it here in Austin and it’s a common plant in many parts of the southern United States. Native to Mexico and all the way south to Columbia, it’s naturalized in parts of South Texas. I remember seeing it in Corpus Christi growing up, although I don’t think my parents grew it in their gardens. It’s related to the Shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana), which is also a common South to Central Texas perennial.
Most years, if there’s a deep enough freeze, this fabulous herbaceous perennial dies to the ground and returns from its roots once temperatures warm. Then in mid to late summer, it begins its bloom cycle. It will bloom, sporadically, until it succumbs to the next significant freeze. During this mild winter (in Austin) in which there was no hard freeze (mid-twenties or lower), these gorgeous plants didn’t die to their roots. Mine suffered slight freeze damage on some of the foliage, but that was all.
My Mexican Honeysuckle began its 2011 bloom cycle last August/September, rested a little during the “winter” months and then started blooming again about six weeks ago. They show no inclination to cease showing off as they brandish their clusters of tubular, orange flowers with abandon.
Mexican Honeysuckle is drought tolerant, but I usually water it once every two weeks during the summer. During our Summer from Hell of 2011, it didn’t bloom, but it always looked good and I don’t remember it wilting often. I’ve had no problems with insects or disease –it’s a very easy plant to grow and maintain in the garden. It’s not too fussy about soil type and it does well in a dappled shade situation.
I saw two Mexican Honeysuckle plants recently on the Hike and Bike trail around Lady Bird Lake in Austin. They were planted on a terraced hill, with no irrigation (that I could see) in the dappled shade of large trees. They were blooming profusely! I probably wouldn’t put this plant in full, blasting Texas sun, because there are better choices and because Mexican Honeysuckle works nicely in a part-shade environment. It’s reportedly a hummingbird plant and that makes sense given the shape and color of the bloom. I’ve never seen any hummingbirds feeding at the blooms, though. And it may well be that the pollinators native to this plant aren’t normally in this geographic area.
In my garden, it’s paired with Purple Heart (Setcreasea pallida) and with Yarrow (Achillea spp.)
I also have it planted with the ‘Nana’ Nandina–you can see how both plants share similar orange/yellow coloring. When Mexican Honeysuckle freezes to the ground, it gives the ‘Nana’ a chance to shine. This year, the ‘Nana’ is peeking around to the right of the Mexican Honeysuckle and isn’t getting much attention.
This one, in the Green Garden at Zilker Botanical Gardens,
receives some direct late morning sun, but is in dappled light for most of the day and gets water once a week in the summer. It has the same rangy growth that mine at home has. I like that. It adds a softness and casualness that is very appealing. Mexican Honeysuckle can be pruned back, as needed, and I imagine that I’ll have to tidy both this one and mine at home during the course of this growing season.
Be patient if you’ve planted Mexican Honeysuckle recently. It can take a year or so before it demonstrates what a great addition to the garden it is. Just give it a little room and let it go. Enjoy!