October 24, 2020

Suck on a Firecracker

For plants in my yard, quid-pro-quo has a specific meaning. If you want irrigation, yummy compostables, and protection from the elements, you've got to feed me something healthy and tasty.  You feed me and you won't have an unfortunate accident I'll feed you. 

I've made it my focus to plant and grow edibles in my yard, but I also have a live-and-let-live philosophy for most everything else that I didn't plant. This is primarily a practical response to the poor soil and dramatically inconsistent rainfall that provides the sustenance for much of what grows here. But it goes deeper. My knowledge of common local ornamental and native plants is limited. I have much to learn about what these plants have to offer; some of them are actually edible. I had no idea that the pretty bush with slender, rush-like, weeping stems growing right by my front door held a sweet surprise. 

I had been living in my home for five years. The bush had been here far longer. One day, my twelve-year-old daughter picked a flower from the profusion of dazzling orange-red blossoms adorning the plant. To my great horror, she put it straight to her mouth. After a second or two, she tossed it away. I frantically pressed her for information, and she was enthusiastically forthcoming with the details. This was a firecracker plant and you could suck out some sweet goodness from the base of the flower. That sounded like honeysuckle, but it didn't look anything like it. With a name like honeysuckle, you have an inkling of what you're in for, when you eat it. But firecracker plant?

Somewhere between growing up in New York City and going to summer camp, I had learned not to eat pretty red berries growing on bushes. I had not, however, received any advice about eating pretty red flowers. Better safe than sorry comes to mind. I do prefer to make a positive identification, before putting anything in my mouth, whether a friend has lovingly cooked it for me or I find it growing in a ditch by the side of the road. So I set off to do some research.  

From Plant Illustrations, public domain. Drawn by Sarah Ann Drake.
Originally published in Edwards’s Botanical Register, vol. 21: t. 1773 (1836)

As usual, there was a morass of confusion over the various common names. The official name is Russelia equisetiformis. Given the information overload gushing from the internet, there was precious little about whether or not my daughter should be sucking the nectar from this flower. Here is a list I did find of known medicinal uses. There were a number of lists of edible flowers that included firecracker plant, so that was a good sign. I could find nothing saying that Russelia equisetiformis is toxic. Another good sign. And that was enough for me. I have been eating tiny quantities of the sweet nectar ever since.

Disclaimer: Although I have not found any evidence that the flower or nectar of the firecracker plant is toxic, I also cannot guarantee the safety of eating the flower or nectar. CONSUME AT YOUR OWN RISK.

I no longer rush past the firecracker plant when I come home. If it is blooming, I stop for a quick, sweet treat. Here's what I do. I pull a single flower from the stem. I make sure to get the entire bloom, all the way down to the point where it connects to the stem. Once picked, if it is open at the bottom, I am good to go. If not, I pinch the bottom bit gently and pull out the stamen. Then I suck the half-drop of nectar out and enjoy that sweet taste.

Every few years, the plant spreads out a bit too much and I dig some of it out by the roots. To date, it has required no extra irrigation or fertilizer. It does flower better, when there is more rain. Due to the long tubular flower and sweet nectar, I have seen the occasional hummingbird feeding on the flowers. All in all, firecracker plant adds a bit of sparkle to my day. 

For my friends in colder regions: While it is frost tender when temperatures dip below freezing, regrowth is probable in USDA zones 9-11. For me, part of the beauty of this plant is that I don't do any maintenance, and yet it is so successful. Instead of growing firecracker plant, you could look around your property for some healthy, but not overly invasive, plants with which you are unfamiliar, and try to identify them. They may have edible and/or medicinal uses. Or sign up for a native plant walk in your area. You may get some ideas for edible plants that will readily grow in your yard, and you will have the benefit of an expert guide to help with identification. If you live in a colder area and you are desperate to grow firecracker plant, you could plant it in a container and bring it inside to overwinter near a sunny window. But it might be easier in colder climates to treat it as a summer annual.