I was sitting on my deck a few days ago watching a hummingbird go to every flower on my bouvardia plant. My plant is still small and short so the hummer was close to the ground, which made me worry about his safety with our ever present cats. But he was sure interested in those flowers.
If you are looking for an interesting blooming plant that attracts hummingbirds then bouvardia may be just the plant you need. For most gardeners it will need to be a pot plant since it’s only hardy to zone 9. But it overwinters inside nicely and will bloom on and off through the winter.
Bouvardia ternifolia is also known as Firecracker Bush, Trumpotilla, or Hummingbird Flower. It is native to Mexico and the far southwestern United States. In the wild it’s a shrub that grows to about 4 feet tall. It responds well to pruning however and potted plants can be kept much smaller.
Bouvardia has narrow oval leaves on woody stems. The foliage is attractive as a house plant. The flowers are the spectacular part of the plant. They are a bright orange-scarlet tube flaring at the bottom into 4 petals. They are 1-2 inches long and form in clusters at the end of branches. They are full of nectar which attracts hummingbirds, which are the pollinators for the plant.
For me (Zone 5) bouvardia blooms from late winter to mid-spring inside, takes a short break when I move it outside after frost threat is gone and then blooms from mid-summer to late November before resting. Many gardeners with a very bright, warm indoor location for it report it blooms all winter and summer.
Cultivation of bouvardia
In the north you will have to order your bouvardia plant from a catalog. In the southwest plants are often sold in garden stores. Plants can be grown from seed, if you can find it.
In the far south bouvardia can be planted in the ground. Choose a sunny, well drained area. It will grow in partial shade but not bloom as well. In zone 9 it will probably die back to the ground but return in spring. In zones above 9 and indoors it is evergreen. It prefers the drier climate of the southwest rather than the humid southeast. Bouvardia likes slightly acidic to neutral soil.
Indoors bouvardia needs a potting soil that is lightweight and drains well. Choose a pot that is appropriate for the size of the plant. Most small plants do well starting out in a 6 inch pot. You will need to transplant into a larger pot every year or so until the plant gets to the size you want it to remain. You will retain the size by pruning the top growth and not giving it a larger pot.
When inside find the sunniest, warmest spot you can for the bouvardia. If you don’t have a bright south window you may want to provide a grow light to keep it in bloom. Bouvardia benefits from being outside in the summer, after danger of frost has passed and there it can draw hummingbirds for you. When you move it outside in the spring give it a month in a location that is at least shaded in the middle of the day. Then move it to full sun if desired. Outdoors they will bloom happily in light shade or when shaded for a few hours of the day.
Bouvardia should dry slightly between watering. Outside in the ground it is considered to be drought tolerant but if you want consistent bloom inside or as a potted patio plant you’ll want to water it regularly. Indoors use a water soluble fertilizer for blooming plants according to label directions, about every other week. Do the same when you move it outside or if you are repotting it then you can mix some slow release granular fertilizer for blooming plants into the potting soil.
Don’t be afraid to prune bouvardia to shape it or limit its size. Pruning often promotes blooming in this plant. Even small plants 8-10 inches high can bloom although the display is better the bigger the plant gets. Also you should deadhead, (remove dead flowers) to keep it blooming longer.
Bouvardia can be propagated by stem cuttings so you may want to root those pruned pieces. It can also be started from seed, although seed is hard to find in catalogs and germination can be slow and erratic.
Bouvardia has few disease or insect problems inside or outside. If the leaves start looking chlorotic (yellow or light green with darker green veins) try using a water soluble fertilizer for acidic plants. If the leaves are falling it may mean the light level is too low or the temperature too cool. Bouvardia prefers temperatures above 45 degrees. It may lose some leaves when brought inside in the fall but this is normal.
Bouvardia is very sensitive to ethylene exposure and it may drop leaves or even die if exposed to the gas. Fruits and some vegetables give off ethylene gas so don’t store them near the plant. It’s also found in cigarette smoke, auto exhaust and propane heater fumes.
There are other species of bouvardia, some of which are grown for florist use. The flowers of these are less tubular and more star shaped and they come in a wide range of colors. Bouvardia ternifolia also has some flower color variations in the red-pink range but the cultivars can be hard to find.
Bouvardia is not edible. Little is known about herbal uses though in Mexico they are used to “cure” scorpion bites. A study (link below) did find that an extract from bouvardia roots did relieve the poisonous effects of a scorpion sting.
Bouvardia is listed in the FDA poisonous plant database.