Florida Firespike is common in Central Florida gardens and in full winter bloom. Firespike is arguably one of Florida's more attractive invasive species, and it is spreading north. Alternatively described as Odontonema cuspidatum, O. tubiforme, O. tubaeforme (Bertol.) Kuntze, and O. strictum, individuals found in Florida are more than likely the same species, a native of Mexico. Read more about the taxonomy of Firespike below.
In its native range Firespike is pollinated by specialized hummingbirds. There are few hummingbirds in Central Florida in winter so butterflies take over. Above, a Giant Swallowtail feeds on Firespike.
Preferred Scientific Name
Odontonema cuspidatum (Nees) Kuntze
Preferred Common Name
Florida Firespike or Cardinal’s guard
Other Scientific Names
Odontonema strictum Sensu West Indian authors, non (Nees) Kuntze
Thyrsacanthus cuspidatus Nees
Odontonema tubaeforme (Bertol.) Kuntze
International Common Names
English: cardinal flower; cardinal’s crest; fire spike; mottled toothedthread; odontonema; red justicia; scarlet firespike; Florida Firespike
Local Common Names
Florida: Florida Firespike
Ecuador: lava botellas
Mexico: coral de jardín; flor de chupa miel; flor de chuparrosa
Paraguay: clavo de fuego
Saint Lucia: firespike
Summary of Invasiveness
O. cuspidatum is a shrub commonly planted as an ornamental for its attractive red tubular flowers. It has escaped from cultivation and can be found naturalized in disturbed areas as well as in relatively unaltered forests (Lorence et al., 1995; Space and Flynn, 2002; Meyer and Lavergne, 2004). O. cuspidatum represents a serious problem due to its ability to invade the understory of native forests. O. cuspidatum is included in the Global Compendium of Weeds (Randall , 2012), and it is also listed as invasive in Hawaii, French Polynesia, Samoa, the Galápagos Islands, and Cuba (Lorence et al., 1995; Meyer and Lavergne, 2004; Oviedo Prieto et al., 2012; PIER, 2014). It is considered as potentially invasive in Puerto Rico (Rojas-Sandoval and Acevedo-Rodríguez, unpublished data).
The genus Odontonema is native to the New World and includes about 20-30 species distributed in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean (Daniel, 1995). Several Odontonema species are commonly cultivated as ornamentals in nurseries, greenhouses, and gardens in tropical and subtropical regions (Daniel, 1995; Francis, 2005).
O. cuspidatum is native to Mexico (Daniel, 1995; USDA-ARS, 2014). It has been widely cultivated as an ornamental and can now be found naturalized in the southern United States (Florida), Central and South America, West Indies and several islands in the Pacific Ocean (see distribution table for details, Daniel 1995, 2001, 2005; PIER, 2014; USDA-ARS, 2014).
According to Meyer and Lavergne (2004), O. cuspidatum (under the name O. strictum) was first collected in 1927 in Tahiti (French Polynesia) and in 1937 in Hawaii. Wagner et al. (1990) reported this species for Hawaii (under the name O. strictum) as “sometimes observed in disturbed areas” and concluded that the species “does not appear to be naturalized”. In the website treatment for the flora of Hawaii, Wagner et al. (2005) correct the name of the Hawaiian plants to O. cuspidatum and report the species as naturalized. In the West Indies, the occurrence of O. cuspidatum was reported as early as 1900 for Cuba (Urban, 1901). In 1925, Britton and Wilson reported O. cuspidatum as a strictly garden plant. By 1997, O. cuspidatum was reported as escaped (Liogier, 1997) in Puerto Rico, and in 1999 Acevedo-Rodríguez and Axelrod reported it as an “aggressive exotic, very common in the understory of secondary forests and plantations” for areas of the Rio Abajo Forest Reserve. Currently, O. cuspidatum is widespread along roadsides and understory of secondary forest in numerous localities across Puerto Rico and in areas of the El Yunque National Forest (Acevedo- Rodríguez unpublished data). In the Dominican Republic O. cuspidatum is known to occur since 1921 as a roadside plant (US Herbarium Collection). The species is considered as escaped in the most recent flora of Hispaniola (Liogier, 1995). In summary, these sources indicate that O. cuspidatum has the capacity of becoming naturalized and abundant in a relatively short period of time after being introduced as a garden plant.
O. cuspidatum can be found naturalized in wet open areas, secondary forests, forest edges, along roadsides, lowland rainforests, montane forests, pine-oak forests, and cloud forests from sea level to 1950 m (Lorence et al., 1995; Space and Flynn, 2002; Meyer and Lavergne, 2004; PIER, 2014). Because it is shade tolerant, it is able to colonize the understory of both disturbed and mature forests (Space and Flynn, 2002; Meyer and Lavergne, 2004).
O. cuspidatum spreads by seeds and vegetatively by stem segments or root-suckers. Seeds are produced in capsules that fall off before drying, liberating the seeds (Francis, 2005). In Puerto Rico, although O. cuspidatum is common, plants produce few viable seeds and most of the stands of this species have originated from abandoned gardens or stem segments and/or roots that have been transported by streams or dumped in the woods with garden disposals. Once established, O. cuspidatum spreads mostly by root suckers. The stems also layer (root) easily when they become prostrate (Francis, 2005).
Zuloaga FO, Morrone O, Belgrano MJ, 2008. [English title not available]. (Catálogo de las Plantas Vasculares del Cono Sur: (Argentina, Sur de Brasil, Chile, Paraguay y Uruguay))., USA: Missouri Botanical Garden Press. 3348 pp.