Garden Gossip

Gardeners as a rule are generous people. Whether it is seeds, cuttings, seedlings, root divisions, produce from the garden or a simple bouquet of flowers, gardeners love to give. And as much as gardeners enjoy sharing from the wealth of their own gardens, they find it equally exciting to receive gifts from another garden. Just yesterday I was the happy recipient of just such a gift from a garden friend. The great thing about this gift, other than the obvious pleasure it will bring in the garden, is that it opened the door for me to look at a plant that we’ve yet to discuss here in Garden Gossip.

There is a large, diverse and fascinating family of plants that have been an integral part of human agriculture for thousands of years. Members of this family are grown for their beauty, for food, for fibre, for dyes and for medicine. Originating in Asia and many of the Pacific Islands, the elegant hibiscus flower has been revered for as long as records have been kept. Citizens of South Korea treasure the hibiscus as their national flower and in fact the plant is so closely associated with Korea that the original Chinese name for the country literally meant “land of the hibiscus.” Malaysia and Haiti are two other nations claiming hibiscus as their floral symbol. In Hawaii there is a long standing tradition whereby hibiscus flowers are used by women as both a personal ornament, and a way of expressing their relationship status. Women in a relationship publicly wear hibiscus flowers tucked behind their left ear while women looking for a partner wear the flower behind their right ear. In India the hibiscus flower is an important expression of the relationship between people and certain Hindu gods and goddesses.

Here in Canada, the hibiscus in its many forms has always awed gardeners with its spectacular beauty. Whether you prefer to have your flowers in the outdoor gardens, or as a part of your indoor environment, there is a hibiscus for you. The hibiscus seedling that so recently came my way as a gift falls into the former category. One of the “hardy” hibiscus varieties (Hibiscus moscheutos), my new tropical friend should actually be capable of withstanding our northern winters. While this variety is only rated as hardy to zone 5, I’ve already had a couple of similar specimens survive multiple winters here so I’m holding out hope for my new charge. For those not familiar with overwintering hibiscus, be aware that the plants will die to the ground each winter (so-called tender perennials). Do not remove the dead stems until spring at which time they should be gently cut at ground level. By late May or early June, the warm spring rains will wake them up. These plants can grow with amazing speed and many varieties will be looking down at you before summer’s end. As the days lengthen to 12 or more hours and the temperatures rise into the 30 degree Celsius range, flowering will be triggered in your hibiscus and will continue on to the cool of autumn. Hardy hibiscus like warm sunny areas with well drained (never wet) soil. Amend their beds with plenty of organic material such as compost or peat and keep the soil just on the acidic side. Water your new seedlings until they are established and then it is unlikely that they will need any further watering except in periods of drought. Since not all gardeners are going to have nicely started seedlings handed to them, you will be happy to know that they are exceptionally easy to start from seed. In fact, these flowers are so easy to start and grow, while being one of the most spectacular blooms in any flower garden that I often wonder why they are not more widely cultivated. If you can get your hibiscus seed started by January, you can expect to be rewarded with flowers in the first year!

Another option for your hardy hibiscus is to treat it like a tropical hibiscus. That is, grow it in a pot and bring it into the house before the first frosts hit each fall. While you may or may not get extra blossoms through the winter, you will certainly get a head start on the next season’s growth.

The tropical hibiscuses are a topic unto themselves and worthy of their own column one day. For now I will leave you with the suggestion to keep your eyes open for them at florist shops and don’t be shy about taking the plunge. The flowers they produce are unparalleled by anything else.

Many other well-known flower generas are also found in the same family (Malvaceae) as the hibiscus. Mallows, hollyhocks, and Rose of Sharon are amongst the most prominent of these. Other well known members of this family that are not often seen this far north include cotton, okra and cacao. Okra is a particularly interesting relative of the hibiscus as it poses a real challenge to grow in our northern climate but even if you fail to get edible okra pods, the hibiscus-like flowers can easily provide enough reason to try.

Next week I’d like to add a few more tidbits to our hibiscus discussion. Until then, stay dry!