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Hardy Hibiscus

Not the fussy tropical houseplants, but tough, hardy shrubs that light up gardens as far north as Zone 4 with flowers up to 12 inches across!

by Ray Allen, Founder, AmericanMeadows.com

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Do you know the story of the fabulous hardy Hibiscus Hybrids? They're part of a confusing group of plants called Hibiscus, rose mallow, althea, rose of sharon, giant mallow, swamp mallow and other things, but forget all that, these are mid-size hibiscus shrubs created from some of our most beautiful North American wildflowers.

Here's the main confusion. The genus Hibiscus has both tropical and non-tropical species. We're taking here about the non-tropicals. These are not the famous florist plants that have similar, but smaller flowers. That's Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, the "China rose." With thousands of hybrids, it's the state flower of Hawaii, and the national flower of Malasia. The tropical hibiscus is wonderful, and if you live in Miami or Hawaii, you can enjoy them in your frost-free yard. Otherwise, they're houseplants, and not very easy to grow.

The Hardy Hybrids

We're more interested in the hardy hybrids, like the one above left, in a front yard in Texas. Hybridized from wildflowers that have the largest flowers of them all, these are yard shrubs that are winter-hardy as far north as Zone 4. They're not brand new, but they're finally getting the nationwide fame they deserve, since they display their stunning flowers all summer and fall. The photo of the beautiful pink one above is one of the most famous of the group, 'Lady Baltimore', but there are now several other stars including 'Kopper King', shown at right. And the story about them is fascinating.

Wow your friends. They're easy to grow. Don't think these garden treasures are difficult. It's quite the opposite. All they ask is full sun, decent soil (they're adaptable), and some pruning once in awhile. They leaf out very late in spring, so don't think they're dead and chop them down. Be patient, and in a few weeks you'll have attractive foliage (often finely cut, and sometimes copper colored) and soon thereafter a summer full of spectacular bloom.

Hibiscus coccinea
Hibiscus coccinea
Hibiscus moscheutos
Hibiscus moscheutos

Even John Bartram was stunned by these flowers. As early as 1807, the catalog of John Bartram and Son in Philadelphia listed the precious seeds of the wild ones. John Bartram (1699-1777) was one of the earliest and most famous plant explorers from Pennsylvania who traveled in the New World to find new plants. Specimens grown of the mammoth-flowered plants were an instant sensation in Europe. But the wild versions are mostly swamp dwellers and/or rangy tall shrubs with few flowers. Of course in time, brilliant hybridizers would solve all those "problems" and more. A few hardy hybridizers have done wonders with the species. Imagine how Bartram would be thrilled if he could see the dressed-up descendants of his discoveries today!

The Wild Species

In the photos on the left, the upper photo is the solid red species H. coccineaus which is also called Scarlet Rose Mallow, Texas Star, and other common names. The lower photo is of the most famous wild species, H. moscheutos. It grows wild in wetland swamps from Massachusetts to Florida, and west as far as New Mexico. (See species chart at bottom.) The plants range up to 8 feet or taller.

Modern Named Hybrids

The rangy habit, ungainly height, and demand for wet ground are all a thing of the past today. Modern cultivars began with Robert Darby, who did his work in Maryland, and named his two most famous successes after Lord Baltimore and Lady Baltimore. Both hybrids are still very popular today. During the 1950's Darby created 'Lord Baltimore' (a solid red hybrid) by crossing several quite common, but then mostly unknown wild hibiscus species that haunt wetlands all the way from Louisiana to New Jersey. Most wildflower enthusiasts have never seen one in the wild.

Fleming Fields
Fleming Fields Hibiscus
Fleming Fields
Fleming Fields Hibiscus

In 1977, Darby followed the 'Lord Baltimore' with 'Lady Baltimore'. His patent explains that both the Lord and the Lady were created by crossing at least four native hibiscus species: H. militaris (which is now renamed H. laevis), H. coccineus (the solid red species), H. palustris (Palustris means "swamp" in Latin.), and the best known wild one, Hibiscus moscheutos (photo above). You can find always find several of these species in any good wildflower field guide.

Our beautiful photo of 'Lady Baltimore' at the beginning of this article is by Professor Wm. C. Welch at Texas A&M University. Dr. Welch, by the way, calls these plants Giant Rose Mallow, and explains that they "have the largest flowers of any cultivated perennial."

During the 1960s, the Sakata Seed Corporation in Japan began hybridizing hardy hibiscus. Their work produced the very successful H. 'Southern Belle' and H. 'Dixie Belle', but their greatest hits were produced in the 1970's and 80's with the spectacular 'Disco Belle' series.

In more recent years, the story of the Hibiscus Hybrids shifted to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the now-famous Fleming Brothers went to work on the hibiscus species. Scenes from the Flemings' nursery, called Fleming Flower Fields, are shown at left and below, with some of the incredible hibiscus hybrids created there. They are all patented plants.

The Flemings are a fascinating family. The three brothers never married, always stayed on the home property, and devoted their entire lives to hybridizing flowers. Their mother was the State Naturalist for Nebraska, so they had a deep knowledge of native plants growing up. Today, they're famous as the creators of some of our most valued perennials from Dianthus ("Pinks") to Veronicas to Crape Myrtles. But later in life (the last brother passed away in recent years) they specialized in hybrid hibiscus, and what spectacular results they achieved!

Dave Fleming
Dave Fleming Hibiscus

Probably they're best known hybrid is the world famous 'Kopper King'. This stunning hibiscus not only has magnificent bi-colored flowers that sometimes reach a full foot (12 in) in diameter, the foliage is unique as well. 'Kopper King' has copper-colored finely-cut leaves, making it doubly decorative in the garden. Other famous Fleming Hybrids are 'Old Yella', 'Torchy', 'Fireball', 'Robert Fleming', 'Dream Catcher', 'Fantasia', and 'Plum Crazy'.

Early in 2001, Dave Fleming, the last of the three Fleming Brothers, appeared in an article in American Nurseryman Magazine, with a bloom of his favorite, 'Kopper King' in his hat. Dave was the last of the three brothers, and passed away later in 2001.

Today, these fantastic masterpieces of hybridizing are widely available. This spring we're proud to offer both 'Lord Baltimore' and 'Lady Baltimore', 'Kopper King', and the lovely pure white one, 'Blue River II'. See them all here.

The wild ones, all North American native wildflowers. Most of these spectacular native plants are swamp and marsh dwellers with common names such as swamp rose mallow (H. palustris), halberdleaf marshmallow (H. laevis), Texas star (H. coccineus), and many more.

Hibiscus Species

Height

Bloom Color

Native Range

H. moscheutos 3-8' wht. or pink w/purple center Wetlands in MA so. to FL, w to NM, KS, IL, WI
H. coccineus 3-10" red Swamps and brackish marshes in VA so. to FL and w. to LA and AR
H. laevis, previously H. militaris. 3-5' pale pink w/purple center Riverbanks, swamps, MN, IL, IN, OH, and PA south.
H. palustris 5-7' white or pink w/red center Brackish or Salt Coastal Marshes from MA to NC and Gt.Lakes marshes.
H. grandiflorus to 10' pink, red center Coastal plain marshes, LA, FL, GA
Hibiscus Blue River II
Blue River II
Hibiscus Lord Baltimore
Lord Baltimore
Hibiscus Kopper King
Kopper King
Hibiscus Lady Baltimore
Lady Baltimore
Hibiscus Plum Crazy
Plum Crazy
Hibiscus Robert Fleming
Robert Fleming

Photo Credits: Top photo by FlemingFlowerFields.com. 'Lady Baltimore' shrub at beginning of article, by Prof. Wm. Welch, Texas A&M Univ. Hibiscus coccineus from Missouri Botanical Garden. Hibiscus moscheutos from NC Roadside Wildflower Program. Two photos of perennial gardens with hibiscus and photo of Dave Fleming from FlemingFlowerFields.com.

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