LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
With several hundred types of hibiscus, one could write a book on this plant alone — and many have done so. The name hibiscus gets its origins from the ancient Greek word “hibiskos,” which means marsh mallow or white mallow. Greek physician Dioscorides, who served in the Roman army, is credited with giving the plant this name.
Dioscorides also was a botanist and pharmacologist, as many ancient experts wore several hats in those days. Before the wide use of chemically synthesized pharmaceuticals, physicians had to utilize natural compounds mainly derived from plants. It was not until the early 1900s that we saw a shift away from medicinal plants to pharmaceutical drugs across the world.
Dioscorides wrote a five-volume Greek encyclopedia on herbal medicine titled “De materia medica,” which was read and followed for more than 1,000 years. So, as you can imagine, hibiscus has been used for medicinal reasons since the beginning of recorded history. Teas are made from hibiscus flower and can be found as a flavoring in common beverages.
Hibiscus is, of course, a member of the mallow family, which is made up of many species native to temperate, subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world, including North America. Some species are tropical and act as annuals in our climate while others are hardy and grow as herbaceous perennials. Many types grow as woody shrubs and, sometimes, small trees.
One interesting fact on the Malvaceae, or mallow, family is that both cacao and cotton are members. These two plants are two of the most economically important crops globally. I personally could not do life without them. Okra also is a member. While okra may be of lesser economic importance, many of us in Louisiana use it as a key ingredient in one of our favorite dishes: gumbo (which, by the way, is a West African word meaning okra).
The mallows I really want to discuss are the beautiful flowering types, such as the hardy hibiscus or swamp rose mallow, tropical hibiscus, Turk’s cap and althea, also known as rose of Sharon. Tropical hibiscus is also called Chinese hibiscus. It’s native to tropical Asia and grows well in hardiness zones 9 to 11. Growing to an average height of 6 feet and width of 4 feet, it is widely used as a tropical blooming shrub in landscapes of the South.
As the name suggests, tropical hibiscus are not fully hardy unless in zone 10 to 11. They can be used as patio plantings and protected each winter. In the landscape, it will need to be protected in zones 8 to 9. What’s so great about this shrub is its glossy, deep green foliage and, of course, its large, showy, funnel-shaped flowers that come in single and double forms in every color combination you can imagine. So much breeding has gone into hibiscus, you might spend a lifetime trying to collect every type. Unfortunately, blooms only last one to two days at most. Some breeding and specialty hybrids can have longer-lasting blooms.
Next is the hardy hibiscus, sometimes called swamp rose mallow, that is native to wetlands of Louisiana. There are many types of hardy hibiscus. This refers to it being winter hardy and being a warm-season deciduous perennial that returns each spring. Growing best in well-drained but moist soils, these grow upwards of 3 to 4 feet and 2 to 3 feet wide. They prefer full sun for the best flower production.
Luna series hibiscus is a cultivated hardy hibiscus that is a Louisiana Super Plant. It comes in shades of pink, white, red, rose and a pink-and-white swirl. Flowers are often referred to as “dinner plates” because they are large and flat. They make an excellent cut flower, even if for just one day.
Althea, or rose of Sharon, is another great member of the mallow family. Sometimes spelled as althaea, this plant is a deciduous shrub growing to an average of 8 feet by 4 feet wide. It is native to Europe but is widely distributed in the South, being an heirloom to many gardens. Aphrodite althea is also a Louisiana Super Plant selection. It has light pink, ruffled petals with a dark red eye center. Flowering begins in early summer and continues throughout the fall. It makes a great accent plant for the landscape. Growing upwards of 10 feet, these can used in the landscape like a small tree. Prune in late winter to encourage more blooms that form on new wood.
Lastly, there is Turk’s cap, another member of the mallow family and another North American native that is widely grown in the southern United States. It is herbaceous perennial with semi-woody stems. Most common varieties produce striking red, twisted flowers that never fully unfurl. Light pink varieties can also be found. Hummingbirds and butterflies love this plant, which produces red fruit in the fall. It is an excellent addition to pollinator gardens.
Hibiscus species are great additions to the landscape and for growing in containers. They produce gorgeous flowers loved by humans and wildlife alike. We can admire and learn lessons from the hibiscus. There is a saying from an anonymous author: “Live each day of your life just like a hibiscus lives its day.” And might I add to that — bloom as if it were your last.
Aphrodite althea is a Louisiana Super Plant and a member of the hibiscus family. LSU AgCenter file photo by Allen Owings
Turk’s cap is native to North America and comes in colors of red and light pink. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Hibiscus Luna Pink Swirl is a Louisiana Super Plant and member of the mallow family. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter