With its delicate-looking flowers and rich foliage, Mexican heather is perhaps the most common Cuphea species grown in U.S. gardens. It’s typically grown as a heat-loving perennial in the south and summer-specific annual in the north because of its tenderness to frost. But with the right care, this beautiful bloom can survive winter climates across the U.S. – you might just need to bring it indoors once the weather turns cool.
How Tall Does Mexican Heather Get?
Prized for its cheery pink, purple, or white flowers and lacy foliage, Mexican heather – also known as false heather – can be used as a border plant, in containers on patios or indoors, and along walkways. It grows between 18 and 24 inches tall and blooms throughout the summer. As an added bonus, the flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds to make your garden or planting space even more enjoyable.
With its many shoots of bright green foliage, false heather is a small evergreen shrub native to Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. It’s naturalized to Hawaii, and in the U.S., this plant is highly popular. It boasts a moderate degree of salt tolerance and adaptability to various soils. False heather can even tolerate high summer heat and some drought. It grows best, however, in well-drained soil with regular moisture.
A Plant That Enjoys the Tropics
False heather can be grown in most climates – including states with cold winters like Pennsylvania and Michigan – as an annual but is generally a perennial in USDA zones 8 to 11. These zones maintain temperatures that rarely drop below 25 to 40 degrees F and include areas like California, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and other southern states.
Soil moisture is the key to keeping false heather alive in winter months. You’ll want to water up to one full inch the day before a frost is forecast, Let the soil thoroughly dry, however, between waterings to prevent root problems. Also spread a three-inch-thick mulch layer between the plants to help them retain warmth and moisture. You’ll want to opt for breathable mulch over heavier wood chips.
Bring Potted Plants Inside
If you live outside USDA zones 8 to 11, you can still enjoy the beauty of Mexican heather during winter months. Simply keep your plants potted and bring them indoors. Place them in a suitably warm, bright spot away from heat vents and cold drafts, and keep them well watered. Remember, however, to allow the soil to visibly dry between waterings so the roots stay healthy. In the spring, the plants can return outdoors once temperatures rise above 50 degrees F.
Explaining the Term False Heather
False heather is a member of the Cuphea genus, a group comprised of more than 200 plant species that grow throughout the Americas. But false heather is of no relation to the European family of heathers. Heathers, also known as heaths, commonly grow in acidic and infertile growing conditions. False heather, on the other hand, can tolerate both acidic and alkaline soil conditions as well as most soil types, including:
In some regions, false heather is known as the elfin herb because of its small foliage and flowers. The flowers are indeed small and jewel-like and appear singly in the leaf axis along the stem. But this plant does not stay small and can spread in a rounded shape with multiple stems. As a side note, you might also hear it referred to as Hawaiian heather.
Caring for False Heather
Whether you choose to grow this plant as an annual or perennial, it has a few requirements that should be considered. For instance, it enjoys partial to full sun, meaning it grows best with four to eight hours of direct sunlight every day. The plant does need to be watered consistently with a minimum schedule of once weekly. Watering times will need to increase accordingly during times of drought or extreme heat – especially if your plants are younger.
False heather also needs occasional doses of water-soluble plant food. Alternatively, you can feed the plant by building up its soil level and/or planting it with a slow-release fertilizer. The mini pebbles provide necessary nutrients throughout the growing season. The frequency with which you fertilize will depend on how often you water. In hot weather, when plants demand daily drinks, you’ll need to fertilize once every third watering.
A Reliably Easy-to-Grow Plant
False heather is a hardy and vigorous breed, able to handle temperatures as low as 50 degrees. Keep this in mind before planting outside in the spring – if temperatures are likely to dip below 50, the plant may not grow as well. And, again, false heather can be successfully grown across the United States. The key is in keeping it potted in northern states, although it can be planted in the ground as an annual, and caring for it throughout the year in southern states.
In terms of soil, false heather prefers a mixture of sand, clay, and humus. This ensures a nutrient-rich growing environment that allows for easy drainage. If you grow the plant in a container garden or window box, remember it will generally fill the area you give it. The same is true of pots – its foliage will quickly grow thick and lush. The pots can then be placed around the border of your porch, patio, or pool.
Pest and Growth Control
False heather is highly regarded for its uncomplicated nature. It rarely has problems with pests, but those to look out for include:
- Spider mites
The good news is these can be well controlled with a spray mix of soap and water. You can even spray most insects off with just your hose. Pruning is similarly straightforward. For the densest foliage, cut your plants back by half in late winter or early spring. Use sharp pruning shears and wear gloves to avoid getting contact dermatitis. You can also lightly trim plants throughout the year if they look straggly.
False heather can grow as wide as it is tall. This makes it a great option for softening the corners of sidewalks and paver stones. It can also be used to define pathways or fill out garden beds. You can use it as a centerpiece for your yard – false heather makes a great nest for the base of a sundial, birdbath, or fountain. Last but not least, this plant adds a lovely touch indoors.
If you choose to keep false heather in a garden, it can elevate a variety of styles that include Mediterranean, cottage, and contemporary. It’s even the ideal accompaniment to a rock garden, as it can add a pop of color without interfering with your existing design.
When planting, it’s best to space each plant between one and three feet apart. This allows the foliage to spread. Because it reaches an average of 24 inches tall, you’ll want to plant it in front of taller blooms but behind shorter flowers. To create a garden with the most visual appeal and that retains a low-maintenance quality, pair false heather with other perennials that love the heat, including the:
- Knock out rose
- Cigar plant
- Heatwave blaze sage
- New Zealand flax
False heather is a fuss-free bloom that can be used along borders, within gardens, and even inside pots. Care is easy throughout all months, and if you follow the steps here, you can enjoy this plant year after year – even if you live outside zones 8 to 11.