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Hibiscus species in a Greek garden

by Irmtraud Gotsis
The Mediterranean Garden No 29 July 2002

As well as that 'queen of tropical flowers', Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, many other species of hibiscus can be cultivated which produce flowers of exceptional beauty. I have planted some of these in my garden at Agrili in the south-west Peloponnese and have watched them grow. Generally speaking, the species I shall describe are undemanding in their requirements and resistant to cold.

Hibiscus moscheutos. This hibiscus is a native of the USA, growing naturally in the fertile coastal areas of Georgia and Florida, as well as west of the Mississippi.
The cultivar 'Southern Belle' was developed in Japan. So eye-catching are its plate-sized flowers that one might almost think they were an artificial - and artistic - creation. Their colour may be either white or pale pink, both with a deep crimson centre, or uniformly crimson. Friends in Vienna helped me to find seed of this plant, which now is resplendent in my garden.

H. moscheutos is a herbaceous perennial, in other words its roots survive throughout the winter although all parts of the plant above ground wither and die in autumn. At the end of spring (May and June) new growth appears from the roots. What this means is that, although tropical, this hibiscus is easy to look after and unharmed by the winters of the south-west Peloponnese where my garden is situated (even when we get unusually cold spells). It is a plant that requires space, a sunny position and protection from the wind, as well as plentiful water and feeding if it is to produce its large leaves and flowers. But even in a spacious container it will display its beauty.
After some years of cultivation, when the rhizomes are well developed, some of them may be dug up in spring and used to give new plants. The new growth buds are clearly visible on the part of the woody stem above ground. These new plants are vigorous and will flower in their first year. Sometimes seeds ripen on the plant and may be sown: I have observed that the resulting plants produce flowers identical to those of the parent.

H. moscheutos 'Southern Belle' does well in this region of the Peloponnese, finding the conditions it needs: strong, hot sunshine, a porous clay soil with a pH value of between 5 and 7, high humidity in the atmosphere - as well as people to love it and admire it!

H. moscheutos 'Dixie Belle' has slightly smaller flowers but is equally beautiful.

Hibiscus coccineus. This has deep red, star-like flowers, the petals widely spaced to reveal the green calyx behind, borne on long, stiff stems. It grew in my garden from seed sent from Africa, whereupon I spent much time and effort searching for its name. It is a herbaceous tropical plant, its upper parts dying back in autumn and new growth appearing from the base in spring. Its flowering season extends from mid-summer until autumn and plentiful seeds are produced. It requires sun, and repays the watering and feeding we give it with its generous blooms.

Hibiscus mutabilis. This plant is native to Southern China, Taiwan and Japan, yet feels quite at home in the south-west Peloponnese. Its growth rate is rapid: if pruned in spring to 50cm, by late summer it will have reached more than 2m in height and by October it will be in bloom. Its large flowers are white when they open, become pale pink during the course of the day, and turn dark pink by the evening. Thus flowers of different colours are seen on a plant in full bloom.
It is simple to propagate, since it produces large numbers of ripe seeds every year. Moreover cuttings root easily. The plant loses its leaves in winter and is not harmed by occasional nights of frost.

Hibiscus syriacus. This summer-flowering large shrub or small tree is well known throughout the Mediterranean. There are many cultivars, with single or with double flowers, whose colours range from white to pink to mauve-blue. The darker centre of each bloom is striking.

This plant's botanical name (Linnaeus, 1753) gives the impression that its native home is Syria. However, this hibiscus had already been recognised and named in Chinese literature and its true place of origin is in fact the warm regions of East Asia; it would seem that it was brought fairly early first to Central Asia and then to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. It is known that it was being cultivated in England before 1600. It may well be that it was brought directly from the Orient to Europe on merchant ships. However this may be, H. syriacus, Syringa and Lagerstroemia were among the main attractions of colonial gardens.

Hibiscus syriacus flowers well in our Peloponnesian garden and does not suffer either from the cold in winter or from pests or diseases in summer. It blooms profusely in June and July. I have never seen it raised from seed but it is easily propagated by cuttings.
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