August 8, 2006 > Hibiscus
by Pat Kite
The white Hibiscus syriacus bought at a garage sale three years ago has finally totally bloomed. I view hibiscus warily, since past experience says this 8 to 12 foot tall, beautiful shrub does super until the first killing frost, then goodbye forever.
Hibiscus syriacus, a perennial, is commonly seen in today's gardens. It hails from Africa, so sun and warmth are its natural mode. Via plant hunters, it traveled to England in the 1500s, eventually making its way around the world. Of the 150 known hibiscus species, or kinds, there are some quite interesting, if occasionally harder to find, home garden versions. The large-pod H. esculenta, for example, has a much more common name: okra and gumbo! H. Rosa-sinensis, also called Rose-of-China, Chinese hibiscus, shoeflower, and tropical hibiscus, and is the national flower of Malaysia. Its crushed flowers were once used to polish black shoes. This hibiscus has buds that were used in curries and soups. Its leaves have been used as tea substitutes in China for as long as records exist.
H. sabdariffa, also called Roselle, Jamaica Sorrel and Jamaica flower, has fleshy red calyces surrounding yellow flowers. These calyces are used for making sauce, jelly, cool drinks and tea, tasting like cranberry or currant. There is a H. schizopetalus, also called the fringed hibiscus that has flowers swinging from pendulum stalks. H. mutabilis is often called "Confederate rose." And the state flower of Hawaii is the native H. brackenridgei.
When researching hibiscus, you may also have to check under an alternate common name, "Rose of Sharon." This is very misleading, at least to me. In the Old Testament, Song of Solomon 2:1, it reads "I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys." But botanists say this wasn't a rose, or a hibiscus, but a Sharon tulip. Sharon is the site where this flower was said to grow in Biblical times. Other alternate common names include mallow, Althea, "flower of the hour" since its blossoms open only during the day, and "good night at noon."
As above, tropical hibiscus need full sun, well-drained soil and regular watering. Several can be successfully grown in the Tri-Cities. Blooms are from summer through early fall. References say you can grow them in pots and bring inside during super-cold winter spells. They mention hibiscus growing in Minnesota! There are thousands of colors and combinations. Colors include white, yellow, pink, lavender, bluish, and purple. There are single and double bloom varieties.
If you would like to learn more, there is an American Hibiscus Society. Check it out at www.americanhibiscus.org. Among the information, you'll see some super pictures of hibiscus, such as Primal Passion, Copper Moon and Salsa. They also offer an excellent book on hibiscus growing.
Did you know? A long ago South Sea Island superstition was: a red hibiscus blossom behind a young girl's left ear meant "I desire a lover." Behind her right ear, it meant "I have a lover." Behind both ears, well, "I have a lover but desire another."
Have a nice summer.
L. Patricia [Pat] Kite's new book, Ladybug Facts & Folklore, is now available from Amazon.com.