A True Star of the Garden
Huge red blooms, attractive foliage, value for wildlife, adaptability in the garden and nice fall foliage color describe the Southeastern-native plant known as scarlet rosemallow (Hibiscus coccineus).
In its natural habitat, the plant usually is found in damp, sunny areas, hence another common name, swamp hibiscus. Given its tolerance for moisture, this plant is perfect for rain gardens, sunny ditches and areas with drainage problems. However, I’ve seen it growing fine in gardens that get little supplemental water. It has a fairly deep, thick root, so that may account for its adaptability — although, this also makes it difficult to move, once it has grown significantly.
Scarlet rosemallow flowers are the typical hibiscus shape; however, they are more interesting when fully open, as the five petals separate out from one another, giving the plant another common name, Texas star. As with other hibiscus species, the blooms only stay open for one day, but they open in quick succession. At 6 to 8 inches in diameter, they make an impact at quite a distance.
The openness of the plant prevents the foliage from obscuring the blooms, and makes it an easy addition to a mixed border. There, it can mingle comfortably with other plants, and the loose, open structure of this hibiscus keeps it from overshadowing or overtaking its companions. It will bloom best with ample sun, so don’t let nearby plants shade it too much. If you prefer less airiness and more mass, plant a grouping. Each specimen will not take up much room, so they can be planted together fairly closely.
Upon closer inspection of the plant, you can appreciate the elegant, deeply cut, palmate leaves, as well as the delicate pink cast on the stems and the long, dramatic stamens. An extra bonus is the attractive fall color of the leaves, which turn a lovely shade of yellow. The bloom time is another benefit, as they typically put on a show during the months of July, August and September, when many garden plants are flagging in the heat.
Scarlet rosemallow’s bright red blooms attract the ruby-throated hummingbird, making it a wonderful addition to a wildlife habitat garden. In my garden, it is planted in the bed near my bird feeder, and its loosely spaced stems provide numerous perches for songbirds as they approach the feeder.
The scarlet rosemallow is slow to emerge from the ground in spring, so don’t be alarmed and think you have lost the plant. It’s a good idea to leave at least part of the stalk so you won’t accidentally harm it when installing other plants early in the growing season. I purposefully leave dried stalks when the plant dies in winter so the birds continue to have their resting places.
To see scarlet rosemallow in person, visit the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden at the Cherokee County Senior Center, 1001 Univeter Road, in Canton. You will find it planted in the bog garden and the pollinator garden. If you want to grow it yourself, you typically can purchase plants or seeds at the Master Gardener plant sales at the Senior Center. The next sales will be June 18 and Sept. 17, 9 a.m. to noon.
– Mary Tucker is a North Carolina native who has lived in Cherokee County for more than 25 years. She is a Lifetime Master Gardener whose special interest is gardening with native plants.