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Nothing can compare to midsummer in Mississippi

By By Steve Strong / area horticulture extension agent
Aug. 13, 2003
Nothing compares to midsummer in Mississippi, when the air gets so thick with humidity that the sweat won't even evaporate off of your skin.
Gardeners know that feeling all too well, even at seven in the morning, when all you can do is kick back and hope that the stuff you have chosen to plant is tough enough to survive till the end of the growing season.
One such group of summer survivors is hibiscus, which includes about 250 species of herbs, shrubs, and trees commonly known as the mallow family (malvaceae). Mallows have a been a favorite choice for southern gardens for generations, with some species native to swampy areas, and still others brought in from Europe and Asia for food and medicinal uses.
Hibiscus varieties have passed along from seeds and cuttings throughout the Gulf Coast region, and one of the first to be grown and widely used was Althaea officinalis. This plant is better known around the campfire as the "marshmallow," so named because the roots produce a sugary, mucilaginous (sticky) substance that can be made into candy or medicines.
The marshmallow hibiscus and several of its relatives produce seeds in disk-shaped fruits often described by children as "cheeses." Oddly enough, cheeses is the actual name given to the common mallow, a plant that originated in China and, like its cousin okra (an African mallow), is used for thickening soups.
Mallow is also used in mouthwash in China, and a number of European countries including Germany value the plant for sore throat ailments and digestive inflammation. The main drawback to ingesting plants that contain mucaligin is that the sticky stuff inhibits the digestive tract from absorbing food or other medicines, so extreme care should be taken when concocting your own home remedies.
From a gardening standpoint, some of the more popular hibiscus varieties include Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis), a large-flowered species with deep-pink ruffled blooms that emerge in late summer. Also available with yellow blooms, this hibiscus has probably been cultivated more than any other as a prized garden heirloom, able to reach a height of 8 feet before frost.
Texas star hibiscus, H. coccineus, is another one that can grow 6 feet or taller in a single season, with bright cherry red single blooms that are bigger than your hand. Other garden favorites for a variety of color choices (white, pink, purple) are the altheas, H. syriacus species, which bloom in early summer and mature into woody landscape shrubs.
One of my personal choices is Turk's cap hibiscus, a perennial type that dies to ground each winter, and reaches a height of 6 feet with thousands of pinkish-red blooms produced on the same plant.
Like many of the other perennial varieties, Turk's cap flowers all summer long, and because the blooms stay curled up in a turban shape, they hold nectar and make a terrific food source for hummingbirds (yellow sulfur butterflies, too).
Some hibiscus varieties are also grown for their attractive glossy green foliage, but gardeners should be aware that these plants are what are called "floral" types. That means that they are not cold hardy below freezing, and will not grow back next spring if planted outdoors. Sure, there is always some nut out there that will pile on 3 feet of pine straw mulch this winter to prove me wrong.
Go ahead on with your bad self. In the meantime, the laid back garden variety gardeners will be taking it easy and enjoying the fruits (and flowers) of their labors, planting tough perennial varieties that can survive our harsh weather come rain, shine or even snow.