I always find it interesting how plants we think of as “new” happen to find their way back into popularity over time. Like many other plants, the Hibiscus is no different.
If you’re interested Hibiscus care check out our article: How To Care For A Hibiscus Tree
Here’s how the humble Hibiscus found themselves described back in January 1956 from the pages of Horticulture Magazine titled:
Hibiscus Bush In Hawaii
Thirty-three years ago, the lovely hibiscus was officially proclaimed the flower emblem of the Territory of Hawaii. It was described as “a beautiful, indigenous blossom which grows luxuriously on all the islands, appearing to be most generally representative, no other flower having so great a variety of color, of form or such continuous bloom.”
It literally grows everywhere, tumbling in cascades of bright bloom colors over verandas, on the tops of lava rock walls, as hedges, windbreaks and screens and most effectively as a specimen plant in gardens. Every yard boasts at least one hibiscus, which may vary in height from a good-sized herbaceous plant to a big scale shrub or small tree, 20′ feet high. The wide variety of color and form and the case with which it grows accounts for its popularity.
Since hybridizing of these spectacular flowers is easy, both single and double varieties appear in all hues but blue. They range from clear white through palest pink and yellow to bright orange or gold, as well as glowing scarlet, deepening to rich tones of dark crimson. In recent years, hybrids have been produced with several hues to a single flower, but some of these polychromes are more interesting than beautiful. The large pinks with stamens modified into petals suggest old-fashioned cabbage roses or peonies.
Individually, the flowers resemble those of its relative the hollyhock. They open at dawn, remain crisp and fresh for a single day and close suddenly at nightfall, whether left on the shrub, picked and put in water or laid out dry on a table. Since fresh buds open every day, the hibiscus blooms on the islands throughout the year.
Hawaiian women wear the blossoms in their hair, a charming substitute for earrings, while men tuck one over an ear at festivals. Blooms in profusion are strewn down the length of leaf-covered tables, prepared for native feasts, or laid out in colorful array on counters in the island banks. They vary in size from an inch across, to hybrid giants, a foot wide. Some are ornately ruffled. Actually, the larger ones are almost artificial in appearance.
A sacred flower with the early Polynesians, many references to the hibiscus can be found in their ancient mythology and folk lore. Six or seven species native to Hawaii have been found. A native white form (Hibiscus arnouianus) flourished in isolated areas on Oahu and Molokai for many years, until it produced varieties which now appear quite different from each other.
These whites are the only kinds with fragrance and they remain open longer, sometimes lasting three days. Both these characteristics, sought by hybridists, are apparently difficult to transmit in crossing.
The common red hibiscus or China rose (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) of Asiatic origin has the greatest number of variants botanically and is the species used most frequently for hedges.
The pink hibiscus (Hibiscus cameroni) from Madagascar is also a common hedge plant on the islands. Deep pink with a white area near the base of each petal, its attractive, wide spreading flower is larger than that of the common red. It is used frequently in crossing since the plant is vigorous, well branched and abundant in foliage.
The coral hibiscus (Hibiscus schizopetalus) differs from the others, bearing a small blossom with strongly-recurved, deeply-fringed petals. The staminal column is long and conspicuous, and swings like a pendulum in the breeze. A tall, slender plant, almost vine-like, it has small, delicate leaves.
The weight of the flower, on its very slender stem, causes it to fall over and hang in bell-like fashion. This parent of many of the island hybrids imparts to them its grace, its lengthened staminal column and its frilled petals. Coral hibiscus is frequently used to make arbors, since its slender branches can be trained easily to cover a support.
Fifty Years of Hybridizing
Keen interest in hibiscus culture on the islands began about the turn of the century, when Walter M. Gifford began crossing strains. Enthusiasm spread and as the island people traveled they sent or brought home new varieties.
In 1914, A. Gerrit Wilder held the first hibiscus show where he exhibited some 400 kinds. During the years that followed, amateur breeders found much pleasure in this fascinating pastime. Then Agricultural Experimental and Extension Services on the islands published literature on the subject for beginners. One grower claims to have produced over 2,700 distinct hybrid varieties.
Five is a magic number in the makeup of the hibiscus flower. There are five, stiff, papery 5-toothed staminals with a column rising in the center, five stamens and five lobes to its calyx.
The stigma of five parts is usually a bright crystalline red, like a bit of coral at the top of the central staminal column. Stamens grow on the sides of the staminal column yellowing it with their pollen. Usually it is stiffly upright but sometimes it sweeps outward in a graceful curve, indicating that it is a hybrid and has the coral hibiscus in its ancestry.
The flowers lend themselves readily to hand pollination. Pollen of one flower is dabbed on the pistil of another after its own pollen has been removed. To keep the bees from in terfering, a bag is used to protect the newly made cross.
Seeds ripen in about a month and, when planted, may be expected to bloom in about a year. The outcome is a suprise of mixed and unexpected characteristics. By careful selection some amazing hybrids have been produced. Since the seedlings vary greatly, both cuttings and grafts arc made to increase desired kinds.
In 1947 the late John A. Johnson, one of Hawaii’s leading hibiscus breeders and fanciers, gave his large collection to the University of Hawaii Experiment Station. From this collection, the University has selected some excellent new varieties for the market with special emphasis on the type of plant, its vigor and habit of growth, as well as the quality and color of the flowers.
Periodic pruning is important and at pruning time many new hibuscus plants are propagated by means of cuttings. This method is frequently used in planting new hedges. Varieties that do not root readily are multiplied by grafting, budding or layering.
From 400 varieties in 1902 more than 5,000 have been developed. Visitors to the islands are so fascinated by some of the varieties, they want to take hibiscus plants home with them, but quarantine regulations prohibit the shipment of cuttings or plants. However, seeds can be shipped.
Some of the Hawaiian varieties are cultivated in greenhouses on the mainland and florists who have featured them have discovered they make popular, decorative house plants and have profited by growing them.