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What is Cuphea?

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  • Written By: Terrie Brockmann
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 01 December 2016
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Cuphea, or waxweed, plants belong to the Lythraceae, or loosestrife, family, which has about 250 species that are native to the tropical and subtropical Americas. Many cuphea plants have distinctive tubular flowers in various shades of red or purple and often with few or no petals; for this reason, they are often raised as garden specimens or houseplants, depending upon the species. Some of the species produce oils similar to coconut and palm oils, and horticulturalists are crossbreeding these species to create a more productive, oil-generating hybrid. A few of the species are rich in beneficial fatty acids, which may increase its value as food for human consumption.

One of the most popular cuphea plants is C. ignea. A common name for this attractive flower is cigar flower or cigar plant; other names are firecracker plant or Mexican cigar. The plant has a slender red flower-tube with a white mouth that is ringed with black or dark gray, thus resembling a spent cigar. Its flower has two small purplish black petals. Gardeners generally raise this strain as a garden plant or a houseplant, depending upon the climate.

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Cuphea hyssopifolia is another popular plant that people mistakenly call False or Mexican Heather; it is not a true heather. This shrub, which is native to Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, generally is a perennial garden shrub in warmer regions and only an annual plant in colder regions. The narrow-leaved little shrub has six-petal flowers that may be purple, lavender, red, pink, or white, depending upon the variety.

Some gardeners often find two other species to be highly fashionable: the C. miniata, which is sometimes confused with the C. llavea, and the C. hookeriana. The C. miniata has distinctive flowers that have a green and purple calyx and two large scarlet petals. Its close cousin, the C. hookeriana, has a red calyx with two large and four small purple petals that are sometimes so dark in hue that they appear to be almost black in color.

Botanists have discovered that certain species of cuphea plants contain large amounts of valuable fatty acids. Farmers in tropical regions can usually grow this crop with few problems, thereby decreasing the need for indiscriminate logging of tropical forests. In view of the fact that some cuphea plants have environmental and health benefits, some scientists are attempting to breed hybrids that produce better-quality oils in higher quantities, and are striving to convince farmers to raise them. Some scientists are using newer biotechnological techniques to improve the cuphea plant oil and fatty acid production as well.

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