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Rose of Sharon- Rediscovered

By Tim Wood

No other shrub, or small tree that I am acquainted is now so beautifully in bloom at this. It forms a fine contrast to the dull somber foliage by which it is everywhere surrounded. There are several varieties of this autumn flowering hibiscus. Surely some of them should be introduced into shrubberies for the sake of variety.

So describes one gardener's view of Hibiscus syriacus,

Lavender Chiffon Hibiscus
Lavendar Chiffon Hibiscus- commonly known as Rose of Sharon, Althea, as well as Hardy Hibiscus. This quote which appeared in William Robinson's weekly journal, The Garden in September 1873 is as accurate today as it was over one hundred and twenty five years ago. As sure as it's the year 2000, few plants can brighten up the late summer landscape as well his Hibiscus syriacus. This prophetic gardener would be proud to know (if he had only lived to see the day) that new and interesting selections are finally making their way into our landscapes. While even as recently as twenty years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find more than a few cultivars of this plant, nurseries who once sold Hibiscus seedlings by the color, are now realizing the full scope and variety of this beautiful plant and are offering interesting new cultivars.

What took us so long to offer this diversity? Much of the reason has to with the evolution of the industry. When the nursery industry was primarily based in field production, plants were harvested and shipped in the spring. In order to successfully market a plant it had to look its best in the spring. With the advent of container nursery production, nurseries now harvest and ship plants all season long. Garden centers receive and sell all season long. As a result, summer and fall blooming plants are no longer neglected but in demand. Times have changes.

Nurseries, garden centers and gardeners are hungry for color, particularly late season color and Hibiscus syriacus fits the bill. Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the Hibiscus market came in the early seventies when the U.S. National Arboretum introduced Greek goddess series of genetically altered singles. Don Egolf used colchicine (a highly hazardous chemical derived from corms of autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale) to create the new polypoloid selections Hibiscus Aphrodite, Diana, Helene and Minerva. The increased chromosome number resulted in big flowered singles with thick, long lasting flowers. These new plants generated increased interest in Hibiscus, particularly the single flowered forms. While the Greek goddess series has been a boon for Hibiscus, they have also provided us with opportunities to improve. Polyploidy has given us beautiful cultivars with big, long lasting flowers, and a reduction in seedlings but these plants have their disadvantages. Unfortunately, in northern climates, time has proven these plants to be weak growing, brittle and less winter hardy than diploid plants. Perhaps the best thing about these plants is that they have generated new interest in Hibiscus syriacus.

The Search for New Cultivars

Recognizing the need for new and superior plants with summer interest, Spring Meadow Nursery began to look closer at Hibiscus syriacus and it's cultivars.  Our first step was to accumulate as many named cultivars as possible and to plant them out in a side by side evaluation. In addition to ten or so cultivars we already grew, we scoured the U.S. for new plants. We obtained a replicate of the British National Hibiscus Collection. We made contacts with Hibiscus breeders in France, England and the Netherlands and obtained their new developments. To complete our knowledge and expand our collection, we traveled to South Korea, whose national flower happens to be Hibiscus syriacus. In Korea we had the rare opportunity to see over 150 different cultivars in full bloom. I am certain that we now have one of the most complete collections of Hibiscus collections in North America (see list and descriptions below).

While there a great number of cultivars in existence, a quick evaluation reveals that many are duplicates (similar plants sold under different names). In many cases there are similar phenotypes with only sight differences. It is easy to see that there are some very good plants, as well as, numerous inferior plants that do not deserve to be in commerce. There are a great deal of double flowered selections and upon close inspection they look diseased or sick. It's easy to see why the single varieties are the most popular. In Asia, judging from the cultivars we witnesses, there appears to be a preference for smaller, funnel-shaped flower, while in the United States and Europe big flowered singles are the preference.            

Our goal in evaluating Hibiscus is simple, we are looking for big, single flowered forms in a wide color range, specifically plants with purple, lavender, red, pink, white and blue flowers. Strong plant growth is also a selection criteria. Not only have we seen poor vigor in the Greek goddess plants, but many of the older, diploid cultivars display weak growth too. The cultivar Blue Bird is perhaps one of the weakest growers of the lot. Dutch growers have told us that many of the old cultivars are too old and warn out, having been in cultivation for too long. Personally, I can't understand how an old cultivar can become warn out. I suspect that what growers are observing in reduced vigor is related to a virus infection. A virus that produces no visible signs might explain why Blue Bird and other older selections have lost vigor.

Interesting New Cultivars

Anemone flowered

Blue Chiffon Hibiscus
Blue Chiffon Hibiscus[/img]Two of the most exciting new cultivars were developed by Dr. Roderick Woods,  an amateur breeder from Cambridge, England. While Dr. Wood's breeding goal was to develop a superior pink flower, he stumbled upon a totally new flower shape, best described as anemone-like. The blooms have the typical five big petals of a single flower but are adorned with a puff of petaloid stamen in the center of the flower. The flowers are truly unique and beautiful. Woods was about to trash a batch of  seedling (the flowers weren't pink), when Ian Dickens (curator of the Nation Hibiscus collection) luckily rescued two unique plants with tremendous potential. These two new selections, called Lavender Chiffon® Notwoodone and White Chiffon® 'Notwoodtwo' have since won both Gold and Silver medals respectively from the  Boskoop Royal Horticulture Society in the Netherlands. Having been developed in England, the plants exhibit strong growth even in a cool weather climate.

We recently displayed and distributed plants of Lavender Chiffon and White Chiffon at the Garden Writers Association of America's annual symposium in Philadelphia. The reaction that we got from these plants was tremendous! Judging from this response, I think Dr. Wood's new plants will be well received by the general public.  

Double flowered
One of the best double flowered cultivar was a luck find as well. Some years back, noted plantsman Don Shadow bought in a shipment of Hibiscus from Japan. In this shipment was an unnamed odd ball plant that must have been a seedling. Don aptly named this change immigrant 'Freedom'.  While most cultivars with doubled flowers tend to look dirty, 'Freedom' has beautiful dusky red-pink flowers that are evenly formed, tightly packed, and still show a bit of the normal single petals. It's a strong growing plant in the north and the South. While this plant is still relatively unknown it is increasing in popularity each year.

Boule de Feu is another unique double flowered form. Its deep pink flowers look like carnations. While this is by no means a new selection it seems to be new in the United States. The flowers do not look dirty or sick, but rather they are clean looking and very attractive.

The Singles
As I already mentioned, we have been searching for more vigorous single varieties of Hibiscus. Our search for strong growing singles resulted in a new series of plants called Satin® Hibiscus. These plants originated from two different breeders in two different countries. Dutch nurseryman Rien Verweij began hybridizing in a effort to obtain a stronger growing, improved selections of  Blue Bird and Hamabo. The result of his work is a superior blue flowered plant called Hibiscus syriacus BLUE SATIN Marina (pictured at top of page) and a light pinkish-white single called BLUSH SATIN Mathidla To the untrained eye, BLUE SATIN appears much like Blue Bird. The difference is in the growth. Its strong growth  makes it a superior production plant. It has excellent blooming characteristics but this does not impede its growth.  BLUSH SATIN is also a strong growing selection, noted for its light pink color and a prominent red eye. In bud the color is dark pink and as the blooms unfold, you get a candy stripped looks with alternating bands of light and dark pink.

We found our best pink in France. Minier Nursery developed an excellent pink called ROSE SATIN minrosa. Its clear pink flowers are large and adorned with attractive ruffled edges. The flower color and shape are very nice and it is a strong bloomer. Minier Nursery also developed VIOLET SATIN 'Floru'. This plant has outstanding violet-purple-pink coloration that is unique and beautiful. This is a real standout in our collection.

There is no doubt that Hibiscus syriacus is getting better all the time. New and superior plants should replace inferior plants with either poor growth or poor flowers. Based on what we found in Korea, the selection is going to get even better. Depending on how the evaluations go, we expect to release other new selections of Hibiscus with exciting features like dwarf and compact habits, new flower colors and additional selections similar to WHITE CHIFFON and LAVENDER CHIFFON. This is truly an exciting time in the nursery business. With the demand for summer and fall blooming plants, expect to see many new introductions that will give us gardens that look good well beyond June.  Hibiscus syriacus and it cultivars will be well represented. It's about time!

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