Dear Readers, is it just my imagination or has there been a sudden burst of enthusiasm for hibiscus as a garden plant? Once upon a time I had to travel to the Mediterranean to see these exotic beauties in full flower, but on a wet Sunday afternoon I found no less than three different plants in the environs of the County Roads in East Finchley, and very splendid they were too. I suspect that the climate change induced warmer temperatures are suiting them very well, for this plant comes originally from southern Asia, with its long warm summers. Hibiscus arrived in the UK in the 16th century, and was at first thought to be unable to survive frost. Later, it was realised that although individual buds might be affected by sub-zero temperatures, the shrub itself was frost-hardy.
Hibiscus syriacum is part of a genus of several hundred species belonging to the mallow family, or Malvaceae. In the UK the plant is also known as the Tree Hollyhock, but in the US it is also known as Rose of Sharon, a name that in the UK refers to a bright yellow member of the St John’s wort family. Yet again, we find ourselves divided by a common language, and I give huge thanks to Linnaeus for his system of nomenclature that enables us all to understand what we’re talking about.
I love the way that hibiscus flowers open, the petals swirling around as they open like a ballerina pirouetting.
Many hibiscus species (mainly the red ones) are pollinated by hummingbirds or sunbirds, but our plant, originating in China, is not. It is both self-fertile (i.e. each flower contains both male and female parts) and capable of being pollinated by insects, chiefly bees, who are attracted more for the plentiful pollen than for the nectar. Each flower only opens for a day, but in a good year the shrub will be covered in blooms for weeks, providing plenty of opportunity for pollen-hungry invertebrates.
Hibiscus syriacus is the national flower of South Korea, where it is known as mugunghwa, from the word ‘mugung‘ meaning ‘eternity’ or ‘inexhaustible abundance’. In the South Korean national anthem, reference is made to ‘Three thousand ri (about 1,200 km, the length of the Korean peninsula) of splendid rivers and mountains covered with mugunghwa blossoms’. It is not surprising that Hibiscus syriacus became the national flower after Korea gained its independence from Japan in 1945.
The leaves of Hibiscus syriacus are said to be a good substitute for lettuce, though a little mucilaginous. The buds are said to resemble okra (not necessarily a good thing in my opinion, but each to their own). The flowers are edible, although it’s the dark red flowers of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis that are more usually used to make hibiscus tea. I must admit to getting a bit irritated with the way that so many herbal fruit teas use hibiscus as their first ingredient in order to bulk it out – I find the rather astringent flavour overwhelms everything else. You can also get hibiscus syrup, again, normally made from Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. The ingredient is having something of a ‘moment’ in trendy restaurants at the moment, and to be honest I will be delighted when the moment has passed, and we can get back to normal food, like charcoal bread or aubergine icecream.As you might expect, such a structurally-interesting flower has attracted many artists. I rather like this still-life by Dutch artist Nicolaes van Veerendael, painted some time between 1660 and 1691, and proving that a Hibiscus syriacus just like the one around the corner from me was flowering quite happily in the Netherlands over 300 years ago. Incidentally, the picture sold at Christies for £92,500 in 2014.
And for our poem, I rather liked this, by American poet Jim Ballowe who is, quite rightly, Artist of the Month for August 2018 at the Center for Humans and Nature website. Do have a look at his other work, too.
Remember that in North America Hibiscus syriacus is known as ‘Rose of Sharon’ and is thought to be the plant referred to in the Song of Solomon.
Lessons from the Garden
The garden doesn’t give a fig for Solomon
any more than we know what he meant when he said
that kisses are sweeter than wine. The white fly
sucking at the belly of sweet potato leaves
pauses to ponder neither sex nor text.
Remember that piece of fluff, that ancient ephemera
circling the Rose of Sharon, settling awkwardly
at last in the sun-warmed bird bath,
how determined it was to continue on the wing again
after we plucked it from its futile folly?
Think how the Rose of Sharon greets spring as a dead stick,
then revels through summer days in a pink pregnancy,
each night dropping its spent blooms
nestled like newborns curled in silk blankets.
In a month of spiders, butterflies, and hummingbirds,
in days of asters, mums, and Autumn clematis,
in sun-harsh hours cascading into velvet nights,
in lapsed minutes the sumac takes to redden,
the unexpected forever happens, and we,
thrilled to see the intricate web, the floating color,
the darting shadow, the many-petaled flower,
the diminishing light, are reassured by nature’s tricks,
the existent summer’s ephemeral exit,
fall’s hovering presence awaiting embrace,
geometrical designs in crisp skies,
the unmasking of trees, the sense of humor behind it all,
a stage whisper, the thought that we too
share this scene, waiting to go on.
Photo One by By JeedaGhazal – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64783810
Photo Two from http://www.mois.go.kr/eng/sub/a03/nationalSymbol_3/screen.do
Photo Three from City Foodsters [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons