Our Hardy Hibiscus Hybrids, A Great Story
By Ray Allen
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, and other things, but forget all that--these are mid-size hibiscus shrubs that have been created from some of our most beautiful No. American wildflowers. No, they're not from those fantastic "house plant" tropical hibiscus types you see at the florist. These are yard shrubs that are hardy as far north as Zone 4. They're not brand new, but they're finally getting the nationwide fame they deserve.
It all started back in the 1950's when the famous hybrid, Lord Baltimore, first appeared. It was a cross between several quite common, but mostly unknown wild hibiscus species that haunt wetlands all the way from Louisiana to New Jersey. These wild mallows are tough, rangy shrubs that grow up to six feet or more and flower with huge blooms, often up to 10" across. Most wildflower enthusiasts have never seen one in the wild. But they're there, and a few hardy hybridizers have done wonders with them.
In 1955, Robert Darby from Maryland created "Lady Baltimore," and it's been a favorite ever since. His patent explains that both the Lord and the Lady were created by crossing at least four native hibiscus species: H. militaris, H. coccineus (the solid red one that is sometimes available), H. palustris (Palustris means "swamp" in Latin.), and the best known wild one, Hibiscus moscheutos.
You can find at least two of these in any good wildflower field guide.
History of The Hibiscus Hybrid
In more recent years, the story of the Hibiscus Hybrids shifted to Lincoln Nebraska. There, the now-famous Fleming Brothers became interested in hardy hibiscus.
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!
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 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."