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For many people, hibiscus is the tropical flower, an icon that seems as much at home atop a West Indian straw hat as behind the Polynesian maiden’s ear. In fact, tropical hibiscus have about the most complicated genetic heritage of any group of ornamental plants, but one thing is certain: like so much else, they came to the Caribbean from elsewhere. Actually, any hibiscus found in the region was planted by someone, since the birds and insects of the islands seem unable to pollinate these flowers, so seed is rarely produced without hand pollination.
There may now be over 10,000 named varieties of tropical hibiscus, with 6 distinct forms of flowers (singles, doubles, crested, etc.), and more colors and combinations of colors than one can easily imagine. These hibiscus have a species, “rosa-sinesis” meaning “rose of China,” as part of their botanical name. This could be far more correctly termed the “rosa-sinesis complex,” since the original species described by Linnaeus (a red double from China) was itself a cultivated hybrid to begin with. A large group of hibiscus species native to the Indian Ocean islands, Asia, Australia, the South Pacific, and Hawaii are genetically close enough to hybridize naturally and as people began to migrate through the region, they apparently carried their favorite hibiscus with them, in some cases thousands of years ago. Most of the modern hybrids are created in Florida, California, Hawaii, and Australia, but hibiscus are immensely popular all over the warmer parts of the world. Most of the breeding is done by hobby growers, often retirees who are active in the American Hibiscus Society or its overseas affiliates.

Breeders have been concentrating on improvements in three areas: size, either very big or very small flowers; color, with the quest for a true blue leading so far to a vast array of grays, silvers, and lavenders; and keeping quality. Even on the bush, most hibiscus still only last one day, although a happy plant will produce a profusion of new flowers every morning of the year.

Hibiscus are ideal for decoration, since the flowers will not wilt, even without water, until their natural time to close. Opening buds may be picked early in the morning, placed gently in the refrigerator, and brought out for evening festivities-the cold delays the flower’s closing by several hours.

With a flower of such great and universally admired beauty, no one demands that the hibiscus be useful as well, but there are a few practical aspects to the plant. In India and Jamaica, they are often called shoe-flower, a reference to the use of the crushed flowers as a black shoe polish. Asian women reportedly also use this natural glossy black dye, in their case, as a hair coloring. The flowers are also edible, making a colorful addition to salads. (The hibiscus flowers used in herbal teas are from the related annual plant Hibiscus sabdariffa, usually called Jamaican Sorrel.)

Unfortunately, a number of destructive pests enjoy hibiscus as much as we do. The so-called pink mealy bug, a serious agricultural pest, is destroying hibiscus as well as cash crops throughout the Lesser Antilles and its arrival in the VI is probably only a matter of time. What is already here is a midge larvae that loves hibiscus flower beds, causing many blooms to be distorted or to never open at all. The midge is through to have flown in to the territory with cut flower shipments from Hawaii in the early 1990’s, but it is not considered a major problem on Hawaiian hibiscus, so perhaps another insect keeps it in check there.

Although newly created hibiscus hybrids must be grown from seed, the existing varieties are propagated by cuttings or grafting. Most of the smaller flowered “old-fashioned” types grow readily from woody cuttings placed in well drained potting soil. Grafting is necessary, or desirable, for many of the fancier modern hybrids that have very weak root systems of their own. A branch of the hybrid is attached to the root system of one of the tough old standbys like the “common red” seen everywhere in the islands.

–Eleanor Gibney


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