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Wednesday, 10 July 2013 14:14

The grand and showy hibiscus

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mtn voicesI had my first introduction to the showy and curious hibiscus flowers when I was a boy. Rose-of-Sharon was a common where I grew up, just as it is here in Western North Carolina.

 

My cousins and I would in mid-summer amuse ourselves by trapping large bumblebees in the flowers.  No problem: wait for a bee to penetrate the blossom and then seal the petals shut with your fingertips. We must not have had a lot amusement opportunities as kids since we spent a lot of time harassing bumblebees in this manner.

Even then, I recall noticing the peculiar structure of the Rose-of-Sharon blossoms, but it wasn’t until I was older that I bothered to find out more about them and the other memebers of the hibiscus genus, which belong to the mallow family of plants. All mallows display five petals, within which the male stamen are united to form a long tube (or “staminal column”) that surrounds the female parts. A nectar is produced at the base of the petals that attracts pollinators deep into the flower and thereby into contact with the sexual parts.

Rose-of-Sharon is the only shrub in the hibiscus genus that’s hardy in our region.  Sometimes called “althaea” by gardeners, the shrub is native to Asia but was introduced into the British Isles over 250 years ago and has been a part of our floral heritage for so long it doesn’t seem “foreign” at all; indeed, it’s not uncommon to spot plants growing near old homesites that have “escaped” and made themselves at home with the rest of our native plants.

Which common garden plant displays the most striking blossoms? To my eye okra is the hands-down winner. The plant is a hibiscus genus member native to old world tropics.

Another hibiscus that has come to live with us — this time from from Europe — is flower-of-an-hour (H. trionum), which has lovely sulphur-yellow petals and a purplish-black “eye.” As the common name indicates, the flowers last only a few hours.

Unfortunately, it is more common in the piedmont region of the state than here in WNC, where it has been reported from only Jackson and Wautauga counties.

That brings us to the single hibiscus species native to Southern Appalachian. But, if we have to just have one hibiscus of our very own, few wildflower enthusiasts would choose another in its place.

That species is the swamp rose mallow (H. moshcheutos), which grows in moist woods, meadows, and marshes. Some authorities treat the pink-flowered, ovate-leaved variety and the white-flowered variety with lobed leaves as separate species, but the current thought is that they are subspecies; indeed, the ovate variety sometimes has white flowers, and vice versa.

Here in the seven-westernmost counties of the state, swamp rose mallow has been reported from Cherokee, Swain, Macon, and Haywood counties. To my knowledge, all of these represent reports of the dominant whitish (but sometimes pinkish) subspecies.

The deep-red rose mallows starting to put on a show in yards thoughout the region are derived from horticultural strains such as the “Hibiscus Southern Belle” types offered for years by the Park Seed Co.

No plant is more stunning when encountered in the wild.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .      

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