Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

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'El Capitola'
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'Mango Dainty '
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'Swan Lake'
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'Swan Lake' and 'Fantasia' flowers together
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Hibiscus - Alfresco Autumn 2005

Sometimes size isn't everything.

I'm talking Hibiscus here.

Modern Hibiscus hybrids tend to be big, extravagant, brassy and loud, and sometimes multi-hued in improbable shades of charcoal, bronze or mauve. And I love them all in their tarty finery. Hibiscus are not called 'Queen of the Tropics' for nothing.

But recently I've fallen for a completely different style of Hibiscus.

It started with what I take to be the original wild Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, or something close to it, that grows everywhere in the Tropics, even in the remotest Asian and Pacific villages.

Known usually as 'Psyche' in the nursery trade, it is the one worn in the hair throughout the Pacific.

Small, with serrated, arching petals, long dangly stem and pistil, it is an intense, almost luminous red. Quite the most elegant Hibiscus of all and redolent with history, being one of the plants that have travelled with the earliest human migrations through South-East Asia and the Pacific.

Its vigour makes it hardier than any of its descendents, so it can bring a touch of the tropics to almost any warmish NZ garden. A favourite memory is sitting under an old one in a Balinese courtyard that had been trained as a standard, so it formed a graceful 3m umbrella with scarlet flowers hanging below the canopy like lanterns.

In stark contrast, the delicate, dangly flowers of Hibiscus 'Swan Lake' are purest white, opening in great profusion throughout Summer and Autumn on vigorous upright stems with tiny leaves. This unique Hibiscus habitually mutates to produce occasional branches bearing pink flowers so that after a year or two both colours occur on the same plant, looking for all the world like a cloud of pink and white butterflies. The pink form is sold separately as 'Fantasia' and of course eventually mutates to throw branches with white flowers.

'Swan Lake/Fantasia' makes a superb hedge because of its upright, dense habit and its vigorous response to repeated trimming.

In fact the secret to growing glamorous Hibiscus is good, loose drainage and hard pruning every August. They only flower on new growth so you must treat them like roses and cut them back hard every year. There is no need for old Hibiscus plants to look straggly and woody. The most dreadful, bony old plants can look young and beautiful again after a good seeing-to by a chap with a chainsaw. Doesn't always work as well for people though.   More's the pity.

Another dainty little fellow is 'El Capitola', with pale apricot flowers, a red eye and a frilly bit on the pistil. He's been around for years and makes a charming partner for 'Psyche' or 'Swan Lake'.

More varieties of this group of Hibiscus are becoming available at the moment in delicate shades of cream and apricot, with names like 'Kimiora', 'Mango Dainty' and 'Creme Petite'.

All of these dainty types make up for their size with phenomenal numbers of blooms over a very long season, and they tend to stand up to wind better than the big blowsy hybrids.

In fact 'Psyche' will bloom all year long in a warm spot, which is more than the others can manage.

  And when it comes to the long, dark, desperate days of Winter, who gives a damn about size?

(Text and photography copyright Russell Fransham 2005)