Plant This: Bat-face cuphea, perfect for Halloween in Austin

Austin is home to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats, which summer under the Congress Avenue bridge downtown and constitute the largest urban bat colony in North America. The bat is the unofficial mascot of the city, and the rest of Texas thinks liberal-hippie Austin is pretty batty in every other respect, so what better way to show your civic pride in the garden than by growing a plant whose flowers resemble the heads of bats?

Bat-face cuphea (Cuphea llavea), like the Austin bats, is native to Mexico and enjoys Austin’s hot summers. Unlike the migrating bats, it may even overwinter in central Texas. Marginally winter-hardy here, it dies to the ground in normal winters and may be killed outright during a cold winter or even a short-lived deep freeze. Your best bet, then, is to plant it in late spring so that it can get well established before winter. While it blooms sporadically in summer, its best bloom season is late summer through fall, when its sprawling stems sport clusters of tubular flowers with purple calyxes (the bat face) with two showy, ear-shaped red petals.

Out of bloom, its hairy, oval leaves have a slight blue cast, which can be played up by pairing it with softleaf yucca (Y. recurvifolia), as pictured above, or paleleaf yucca (Y. pallida).

Or amp up your fall display by pairing it with pink autumn sage (Salvia greggii) and Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha). It stays small — about 1 to 2 feet tall and wide — so it’s best used at the front of the bed.

Unlike its nocturnal namesake, bat-face cuphea loves the sun but does well in part-sun too. It can get crispy during our hot summers unless given regular water — at least once a week.

Even if you grow it as a warm-season annual, bat-face cuphea is a fun addition to the garden, especially if you like oddities, have children who would enjoy the bat “faces,” or just want to honor our local flying mammals. It also adds a playful touch of Halloween spookiness to the garden. (Ghostly shrubby boneset is another Halloween-blooming favorite of mine.)

So go ahead and plant some bat-face cuphea next spring. You’d be batty not to!

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

20 Responses

  1. Melody McMahon says:

    My daughter and I were walking on the San Antonio Riverwalk this week and noticed that bat-faced cuphea is planted near the area where Mexican freetail bats roost under the I35 overpass. I thought that was very clever of the landscapers who planted that part of the Museum Reach of the Riverwalk!

  2. Carolyn says:

    Love bat-face cuphea! I’m in East Texas and have had cuphea growing on the west side of my house (under the eaves) for the past four years. I added three more this past spring to a full sun area next to my super hot driveway. Mine get watered regularly from our sprinkler system; the plants in full sun have grown to be as much as 6 feet wide and almost 2 feet tall, and bloomed continually since I planted them. The four year old bat-face cuphea survived the snow and ice of last winter. I did lose a couple of plants a few years ago after they were transplanted; probably didn’t water enough after moving them. Thank you, Pam, for doing such a spectacular job with your blog! Not only is it informative, your photos are always inspiring and beautifully done!

  3. cathy says:

    I love the batface so do the hummers. they do reseed which is nice too. you can get many colors and sizes from a foot up

  4. DC Tropics says:

    I’ve tried a couple of different cupheas, and they’ve grown and bloomed poorly for me. Not sure just what I’m doing wrong.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Sometimes a plant just seems to disdain one’s garden, don’t you find? I’m sure it’s nothing to do with you, DC. You’ve just found your plant nemesis. —Pam

  5. This is one plant from your area that I have grown. It is usually available at a nursery here. It is a cute flower and does well in our summers.
    I hope you and yours are alright with all the flooding going on in your area.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      We’re fine, Lisa. Thanks for asking. We’ve had 6 inches of rain between early Friday and this morning, on top of 8 inches last weekend. That 6 inches is nothing compared to the 14-15 inches people in southeast Austin got in one day. Crazy! I have some path repairs to do, but the garden is fine. —Pam

  6. deb says:

    Looks like I can grow this in Tucson – just have to find it here!

  7. TexasDeb says:

    In the post just prior to this I was thinking that the kangaroo paws could be swapped out for cuphea perhaps… It is adorable, but not something I have a lot of luck with. It seems any year I plant any I’m inviting harder than usual freezes. Rest easy, I’m not putting any in this Fall! (I don’t recall – is cuphea deer resistant at all)

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Good question, Deb. I have all three cupheas — bat-face, ‘Twinkle Pink’, and cigar plant — in the back garden. Sounds like an experiment is due. —Pam

  8. Rebecca says:

    This is such a fun plant. I don’t have it in my own garden YET, but after seeing some in Monet’s garden as well as this post, I’ve added it to my plant wish-list. I’d definitely be interested in the result of the deer-resistant experiment. Based on the internet, it looks like it is “seldom damaged” by deer, so might give it a try in my non-fenced front gardens next spring.