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Hamelia patens Jacq. 1760
pronounced: ham-EE-lee-uh PAT-enz
(Rubiaceae – the gardenia family)
common name: Firecracker Bush, Firebush, Scarlet Bush
Hamelia was named in honour of Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau (1700-1782), French agriculturist and tree expert. He did experimental work on plant physiology and ecology and wrote Traité des arbres et arbustes qui se cultivent en France† (1755) and many other standard works on agriculture and on the distribution and culture of trees and shrubs. Patens is Latin for ‘lying open’.
This is a native of central and southern Florida and the West Indies, Central and South America to Paraguay and Bolivia. It is a showy, fast-growing semi-woody evergreen shrub that can grow to about 4.5 m tall under ideal conditions, but usually stays much smaller. It has whorled leaves, usually with 3 but sometimes with as many as 7 at each node. The leaves are elliptic to oval, about 15 cm long and grey-pubescent underneath, with reddish veins and petioles. They are reflexed upwards from the midrib. Throughout the year, it produces showy terminal cymes of bright reddish orange or scarlet tubular flowers, each about 2 cm long. Even the flower stems are red.
The clusters of fruits are also showy, each fruit a juicy berry with many small seeds, ripening from green to yellow to red, and finally to black. Birds relish the fruits. The bush often contains both flowers and fruits in various stages. It does not have a dormant period, except in cold climates where it is grown as an annual. In these conditions, it rarely grows more than 60 cm tall. In warm climates, it grows continuously, and the wood lacks growth rings. The blossoms, which do not require removal as they fade, attract hummingbirds and butterflies. The fruits are edible, and in Mexico a wine is made from them.
Its Mayan name, Ix-canan, means ‘guardian of the forest’. Indigenous people in Belize use the plant to prepare a remedy to treat many types of skin problems, including sores, rashes, wounds, burns, itching, cuts, skin fungus, and insect stings and bites. A double handful of leaves, stems and flowers is boiled in 2 US gallons‡ of water for 10 minutes, and, after it has cooled, the liquid is applied liberally to the affected parts. The same liquid is drunk as a tea to relieve menstrual cramps. The Chocó Indians in Panama drink a leaf infusion for fever and bloody diarrhoea, and the Ingano of north-west Amazonia drink a similar infusion for intestinal parasites. Indigenous tribes in Venezuela chew on the leaves to lower body temperature and prevent sun or heat stroke. In the Peruvian Amazon, the leaves are used for dysentery, fevers, rheumatism and scurvy. Leaves are also warmed or made into a poultice and applied externally as a pain reliever for bruises and sprains. In Brazil the root is used as a diuretic, while the leaves are used for scabies and headaches. In Cuba the leaves are used externally for headaches and sores, while a decoction is taken internally for rheumatism. In Mexico it is widely used externally to staunch the flow of blood and to heal wounds. In Costa Rica, a decoction is taken to relieve migraines. In Haiti various parts of the plant are used for abortions, anaemia, headaches, menstrual disorders, nervous shock, and to reduce rage! In all, this is a very important plant in Ethno-medicine; elsewhere it is used to treat cancer, constipation, erysipelas, fungal infections, jaundice, malaria, ovarian and uterine disorders. It appears almost to be a panacea!
The plant does best in full sun. It will grow in shady places, but tends to become leggy there.
† Treatise on the Trees and Shrubs that grow in France
‡ 7.6 litres
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken at Nelly Bay 2011
Page last updated 9th December 2016