Splashes of tropical blossoms and colors

Hibiscus: Given abundant moisture and sun, these plants thrive with flair -- some boasting flowers as big as dinner plates.

In The Garden

June 25, 2000|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,Special to the Sun

Hibiscus has tropicallismo, that over-the top character just right for steamy summer gardens.

Easy to grow, with plenty of colorful flowers over a long bloom period from July through September, hibiscus need just two things to guarantee a great show: moisture and sun.

When pampered in the garden with rich soil and no competition, they grow big and bushy, resembling flowering shrubs rather than perennials. Gardeners prone to overwatering plants will also rejoice -- since most species originated in marshy conditions (they are members of the Malvaceae, or mallow, family), it is almost impossible to overwater them. Additionally, they make great container plants.

Encompassing a genus of more than 200 species of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, hibiscus includes both old-fashioned favorites such as Rose of Sharon bush (H. syriacus), and the rose mallows (H. moscheutos) so popular today, which are found in local garden centers. Interestingly, the okra grown in Southern vegetable plots, Abelmoschus esculentus, is also part of the mallow family, so it is possible to have both handsome flowers for the landscape and a contribution to the gumbo pot, too.

There are three native hibiscus, all of which can be grown in this area. H. coccineus, scar- let hibiscus, is a native of the salt marshes and coastal plains of Georgia, Alabama and Florida. A large shrub growing to 10 feet, it has vivid red flowers. Though listed as hardy to Zone 7, it does best as a container plant, wintered over in greenhouses.

H. militaris, or swamp mallow, is indigenous to marshes up and down the East Coast from Zones 4 to 10. It bears white or pink, 4- to 6-inch blooms and tops out at about 6 feet tall. This would make a carefree specimen for the edges of a bog or water garden that gets a lot of sun.

The rose mallow, Hibiscus moscheutos, is the species currently most popular, and the one usually found in local garden centers. Catalogs also offer a large selection of colors and hybrid varieties.

This perennial native of marshes from Maine to Florida (Zones 5-10) has impressive 8- to 12-inch flowers, whose naturally occurring colors of white and cream have been altered through the hybridizer's art into luminous tints of brilliant carmine, raspberry, blushing pinks and pale peaches.

Varieties that have gotten enthusiastic praise recently include 'Lord Baltimore,' with huge 10-inch, bright red flowers that make it one of the most stunning plants in any landscape. The 6- to 8-inch blooms of 'Lady Baltimore' are an elegant, glowing pink with contrasting, deep raspberry centers. Both are very free flowering, 4-foot bushes that make fine hedges or are at home in a border with ornamental grasses, underplanted with other perennials or annuals.

Most hybrid varieties grow about 4 to 5 feet tall but can be kept pruned at 2 to 3 feet as desired. Individual flowers are short-lived, many lasting only a day, but occur in profusion from midsummer to frost, assuring the gardener of constant bloom.

Container-grown plants are available at most local nurseries and garden centers. Plants can also be started early inside from seed, although flowering will be light the first season.

Established plants are frequently late to break dormancy in the spring, so exercise patience.

Lots of sun and abundant moisture, along with good soil should supply a constant display of lavish blooms. For those who like to fuss, light feedings of 5-10-10 fertilizer at monthly intervals may be applied until mid-September.

SOURCES

Carroll Gardens

444 East Main St.

Westminster, Md. 21157

410-876-7336

www.carrollgardens.com

Plants Delight Nursery

9241 Sauls Road

Raleigh, N.C. 27603

919-772-4794

www.plantdel.com

Shady Oaks Nursery

P.O. Box 708

Waseca, Minn. 56093

800-504-8006

www.shadyoaks.com

Wayside Gardens

1 Garden Lane

Hodges, S.C. 29695

800-845-1124

www.waysidegardens.com

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