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Brenda's Garden
by Brenda Beust Smith
by Brenda Beust Smith
Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hibiscus vs. Rose of Sharon vs. Althaea ... help needed in Brenda's Garden!

Althaeas come in white or pink

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.  ~ William Shakespeare, “Troilus and Cressida”

Names of plants can get so confusing they make my eyes cross, and I should know better after 40 years of gardening writing.  But I don't.  Here are a couple of great "name" questions from readers:

What exactly is a Rose of Sharon? Is it simply a Hibiscus under another name? Is it a Hibiscus shrub as opposed to a Hibiscus flower? Are all Hibiscus Rose of Sharons? Are all Rose of Sharons Hibiscus? And what is an althea? A Hibiscus victimized by identity theft? And there's another shrub, who's name escapes me, that is also a Hibiscus. All very confusing to the novice. H.F.


DEAR H. F. Hope you're sitting down. This can really tax the brain, or does mine anyway.


Hibiscus, althaeas, rose of sharon and mallows (is that the other were thinking of?) are all members of the Malvaviscus family.


Within "families" you have breakdowns called genera.  Hibiscus is a genera in the Malvaviscus family.


Genera (or genus), are further broken down into different "species."  The species will have the genera name first then the species name:


Rose of sharon are Hibiscus calycinum.


Althaeas are Hibiscus syriacus.


These are shrubs.  Okra is one of these too.


The fancy-flowered hibiscus are usually one of these two, but they've been hybridized and manipulated to get the huge flowers with the incredible colors.  As a rule, they're less hardy than those that have not been "messed with."


Then you have the mallows, or hibiscus that more or less grow

 wild in colonies.  They generally don't make bushy shrubs but are more rangy growing and multiply into colonies.  Botanically they're listed as Hibiscus moscheutos.


I guess the answer is, they're all cousins!


Speaking of hibiscus, remember the dishplate hibiscus so popular years ago?  They had blooms easily 12 inches across. Never see them anymore, do you? 


The late Dan Leop, who ran Covington's Nursery on Airline in Houston for decades, really cashed in on that fad, bringing in hundreds of starter plants.  They were so popular and a great idea, considering how well hibiscus of all kinds seem to do on the Texas Gulf Coast.


I once asked him what happened, why didn't they survive?  He said it was probably because they were so manipulated to get the huge flowers, the plants themselves weren't that hardy.


Live and learn.


Pride of Barbados

I had the most gorgeous plant I always called a poinciana.  My neighbor said, no, it's a Caesalpinia.  A friend said no, it's a pride of Barbados.  I don't care what it's called. It died this past winter and I want to plant another one but I'm afraid it'll die too.  Is it worth trying another one? S. B.


DEAR S. B.  I think it's always worth trying a plant you want to grow.  The thing is, Nature rules. When I first started writing about gardening, I never thought I'd see the day when people would grow bougainvillea shrubs in Houston.  True, they covered the ol' Cotton Exchange building on Broadway in Galveston.  I can remember as a child thinking that incredible display of color was nothing short of a miracle.


But back then, Houston's winters were almost always too cold, I soon discovered, for these very tropical plants to survive without protection. 


Now you see bougainville shrubs eight feet high and wide, or the vining branches trained up two story high pillars. 


Or, maybe you don't anymore.  This past winter was pretty tough. I lost plants I thought for sure would survive (and some I thought would never make it returned). 


The point is, who knows?  The older a plant is, the stronger the root system it has, the healthier its growing environment, the more likely it is to survive a winter as cold as this past one was.


Last winter notwithstanding, our winters have been growing shorter and warmer overall.


I'd try.  


Re the names, once again it's so complicated.  Caesalpinia is the genus name (see above) and there are a lot of species.  The one we usually see and plant is Cæsalpinia pulcherrima.  It has lots of common names including poinciana, peacock flower, red bird of paradise, Mexican bird of paradise,  pride of Barbados, and flamboyan-de-jardin.


Horticulturists have to use botanical names or they'd go insane.  A few more fun facts, the leaves were long used by Indians to cure fevers, flowers made sores heal faster and the seeds were used in various formulas to cure bad coughs and chest pain.  Don't try it, tho.  No telling which species they used to do what. 


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