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Meet the Hibiscus family

By By Gail Barton / horticulture columnist
Sept. 7, 2003
I was surprised the first time I learned that plants have families.
Like human families, plant families are not necessarily composed of those who live in the same abode. In some cases, family members don't even look much alike. Trees and vines and annual flowers can all be part of the same family as long as they have similar flowers and fruit.
One of the first families I learned to identify has become one of my favorites. The Hibiscus or mallow family is easy to spot. Most of the members have fairly large saucer-shaped flowers and pod-like fruit.
Most folks are familiar with the tropical hibiscus that is sometimes called Chinese rose. Tropical hibiscus is usually purchased in late spring. It is grown most often as a flowering potted plant. Chinese hibiscus thrives in sun and blooms through the summer and autumn.
At first frost, this tropical hibiscus dies unless it is protected from temperature extremes.
The Hibiscus family does include some native plants that grow in the wild. Most of the native members of the Hibiscus family are root hardy swamp lovers called mallows. The term "root hardy" means that a plant's roots survive even though the top appears to have been killed by winter weather.
These perennial Hibiscus plants survive for many years and generate new growth each spring from the roots.
During summer the swampy roadsides in southern Louisiana and in parts of Mississippi are full of white, pink and yellow native mallows.
There is an interesting connection between the swamp mallow and a favorite candy that is often roasted over the campfire. The roots of one mallow species was once used to make marshmallow candy. Even though the process for making marshmallows has changed, the name has lingered.
Several hybrids of the swamp mallows are available for garden use. I have grown two varieties called "Southern Belle" and "Disco Belle."
Each of these has mixed red, white or pink flowers and can be grown from seed. My current favorite is called"Moy Grande." It is a red blooming variety with spectacularly huge flowers up to 8 inches across.
I enjoy growing another native Hibiscus that hails from Texas. As near as I can tell, Texas Star Hibiscus was named for its star-shaped leaves. Texas Star Hibiscus often reaches 8 feet. Like Moy Grande, this shrubby perennial is covered with large scarlet flowers and surrounded by hummingbirds.
Texas Star's fall blooming Asian cousin, Confederate rose, is common in the Meridian area. Confederate rose is a late bloomer. From October until frost, Confederate rose produces puffy pink flowers that look like roses made of crepe paper.
The most impressive Confederate rose I've seen grows into a 10 foot bushy shrub every year. All of the mallows or perennial hibiscus I've described thus far look like shrubs but will die to the ground each winter. Althea or Rose of Sharon is a true shrub that keeps the same limbs and branches from year to year.
Althea can be used in the landscape as a crape myrtle alternative. Like crape myrtle, it is large and sun loving. Althea flowers, however, look like white, pink or lavender saucers from summer into autumn.
I'm very fond of an Althea variety called Aphrodite. I've grown this one in the MCC Fragrance Garden and have been impressed with its vigor and long blooming time. Flowers are rosy pink with a dark center usually from April until frost.
So let's talk for a minute about diversity within families. The Hibiscus family includes annuals or tropicals, vegetables (like okra), perennials and shrubs. So far, I've not even mentioned the most famous mallow of all. The one which influenced the entire history of Mississippi king cotton!