The tell-tale sign of the hibiscus flower: one long staminal column split at the top into five female stigma surrounded by hundreds of pink filaments topped with furry yellow pollen. Photo - photolibrary.com
In their heyday, gorgeous, gaudy Hawaiian hibiscus were on every fashionable Australian garden’s must-have list. Their fashion star may since have dimmed but these exuberant flowers are still a slice of summer. Graham Ross asks gardeners to take another look.
A chance meeting with the exuberant hibiscus in Hawaii in 1956 exposed me to the power of flowers. Prior to that I had grown well-behaved flowers: sweet peas, roses, zygocactus and gladioli, none of which prepared me for the size and colour extravaganza I saw in those hibiscus in Hawaii. Of course I was young and impressionable, and Hawaii was a touch more glamorous than the suburb where I lived. Adding to the allure of these gaudy flowers, which were almost vulgar in their size and flamboyance, may have been the fact that my mother, a traditionalist when it came to gardening, detested them!
Surprisingly then, my first choice to grow at home was quite a tame hibiscus: a beautiful single with a simple range of petal colours. It wasn’t loud but I loved it just the same. Hibiscus x ‘Johnsonii’ has flowers that are a gentle blend of apricot-gold with a red eye. The flowers, at 10-12cm, were on the small side when compared to the multi-coloured, dinner-plate sized Hawaiian varieties sold by nurseries like Hazlewood Bros at Epping in Sydney in the 1960s.
The other easy-to-recognise element of the hibiscus flower are the lobed petals. Photo - Jeanne Ellroy/Gettyimages.com
Hibiscus were not new to Australia by then. The Macarthurs had grown a single, scarlet-red variety called H. ‘Camdenii’ in the early 1800s. This is better known internationally known as the Chinese hibiscus or China Red, H. sinensis, though it still carries the Camden name in Australia. It’s a glorious single red that is still popular today, and is one of the best dense flowering hedges you could grow. A stunning old specimen still grows in the 120-year-old garden of Marie Bailey on Norfolk Island.
Most of us link hibiscus with Hawaii and assume that that is where the plant originated. The assumption is based on both excellent Hawaiian marketing and its declaration as the national flower in 1923. Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, the botanical name of the common hibiscus, was for a century believed to have originated in China but is unknown there in the wild and research leans more to India being its ancestral home. Many Polynesian communities came from the Indian sub-continent and the theory is that these intrepid sailors most likely took the hibiscus with them on their journeys through China to the Pacific Islands. Certainly the hibiscus entered local mythology in the Polynesian Islands. The people of Tahiti, in particular, incorporated the hibiscus into folklore. There the flower is traditionally a signal of marital status; worn behind the right ear to indicate the wearer is free to marry and when worn over the left when ‘already taken’.
'Apollo' is a new release from the HibisQs range with flamboyant bicoloured orange and gold petals and a dark centre. It flowers from OCtober to February. Photo - Sprint Horticulture
Hibiscus and fashion
Extensive hybridizing of the hibiscus occurred in Hawaii in the early 20th century once the China Red arrived and was crossed with local species. From a collection of 400 cultivars displayed at a local flower show in 1914 the range grew to several thousand within 20 years. Both singles and doubles were revered by the Hawaiians for garden display and indoor decoration, and mainland Americans soon took it to heart.
Twentieth century Australians also embraced this spectacular new flowering shrub. Brisbane Council imported 30 new varieties from India, which quickly led to Queensland nurseries hybridizing their own new releases. Hibiscus rosa-sinensis has a genetic characteristic known as polyploidy, two complete sets of chromosomes. This causes the offspring of any cross-pollination to be quite different to the parents creating a huge range of strikingly unique flower colours. This characteristic makes them hugely popular with hobbyist breeders. By the 1950s nurseries were importing more new varieties from Hawaii and Fiji to bolster their collections. It was the quality and size of the Hawaiian flowers that appealed to Aussie gardeners, and for half a century the Hawaiian hibiscus reigned as the ‘It Girl’ of the flower garden.
Today, sadly, many of the specialist hibiscus nurseries have closed and garden centres now sell only a handful of the truly beautiful varieties that can still be found growing in older gardens. In the 1980s gardeners seemed to let their green fingers turn brown. Flower shows declined and gardeners sought low-maintenance plants. Hibiscus, with their demands for feeding and pruning, went the way of annual beds of snapdragons. I think that’s a shame. These stunning flowers still deserve their place in the sun and aren’t nearly as difficult to grow as their gaudy glory might suggest.
A monarch butterfly settles on a single pink hibiscus flower. Photo - Alex Bramwell/Gettyimages.com
If you already have hibiscus, or if I’ve been able to persuade you to give them a go, here are some simple steps to guarantee success.
Hibiscus varieties vary considerable in size. Some are excellent for hedging up to 2-3m; others are wonderful specimen shrubs to 1.5m; and many admirably suit pot culture. Do your research before buying.
They all prefer a sunny place in the garden, in enriched, well-drained soil. Hibiscus are ‘gross feeders’, which simply means they like a lot of feed, and often. Every month from spring to mid-autumn, apply a complete fertiliser, one that is high in phosphorous and potassium. Mulch with a thick layer of cow manure and water this in with a nutrient-boosted seaweed solution. Don’t let the plants dry out during summer.
Pruning is critical as 90 per cent of hibiscus varieties bloom only on new wood. By encouraging lots of lush one-year-old growth you will ensure maximum flowering. This can be done annually after the last frost in spring. Simply reduce the shrub by one-third.
Photo - Fotosearch/Gettyimages.com