THE GIGANTEAN FLOWER ONLY FROM TEXAS
JERRY M. PARSONS, Ph.D.
and Professor of Horticulture
TEXAS AGRICULTURAL EXTENSION SERVICE
"When I was a little bitty baby,
My mama used to rock me in the cradle,
In those old cotton fields back home!"
A lot of this lyric rings true to my beginnings as the son of a Tennessee cotton farmer. The idea of growing cotton for lint never really impressed me, mainly because we had to pick (by hand in those days) all that white stuff. What did impress "that little baby rocking in the cradle" were the big, beautiful flowers cotton plants produce. In the cool of the early morning, the plants would be full of white blooms. By the following day those blooms would have turned pink and more white ones were open. My old Mama would give me some of those blooms to play with. I thought they were the largest blooms in the world!
Times have changed since "those old cotton fields back home" and now I can't get my big toe in the cradle. The size of those cotton flowers doesn't impress me much anymore. I need a flower of comparative size to what my body is now. My body has prospered since the cotton field days. Now I need a REALLY BIG flower. If such a huge flower is to be found, it will likely be in the cotton family or, more exactly, in the genus Hibiscus.
Hibiscus belongs to the mallow family along with useful cousins such as cotton, hollyhock, Turks cap, and okra. One group within the genus Hibiscus immediately attracts attention with the large span of each individual flower, those now called Perennial or rose mallow hibiscus. Within this group there is considerable variation in the shape, size and texture of the foliage and in height of growth produced each year. Their colors also vary from white through pink to red. The giant flowered rose mallow has the largest flowers of any hardy perennial. These are descendants of the native hibiscus found in Louisiana and other Gulf South states. When hybrids of these first appeared many years ago, they were sold as "The Mallow Marvels". Because of their continuing display of summer color, they still deserve the "Marvel" label. They are among the most spectacular and easily grown plants.
The project of producing a hibiscus flower big enough to satisfy the rotund former "baby rocking in the cradle" required the imagination and talent of
Dr Ying Doon Moy, research and development horticulturist at the San Antonio Botanical Center. Mr. Moy cross bred a Hibiscus moscheutos hybrid with Hibiscus grandiflorus to create the largest, open face hibiscus flower in the world. The phenomenon of hybrid vigor (the offspring is superior to either parent) resulted in huge, rose pink flowers of the new variety named Moy Grande. (Be careful not to say the name too fast or would be bilingual, politically correct experts may want to correct your pronunciation to the Hispanic version Muy Grande which means "very large". Obviously, these folks are just bilingual (English and Spanish) and not trilingual (English, Spanish AND Chinese!)). Hibiscus moscheutos 'Southern Belle', which usually has 8 inch diameter blooms, was cross bred with Hibiscus grandiflorus, which usually has 10 inch blooms, to create Moy Grande which has 12 inch blooms. Most gardeners have been settling for the comparatively small 8 10 inch moscheutos blooms but as I out grew the 4 inch cotton blooms, it is time for me to upgrade to Moy Grande 12 inch blooms.
Perennial hibiscus prefer a sunny location and well drained soil containing plenty of organic matter and nutrients. Rich, moist soil and full sun bring the most vigorous growth but mallows are very accommodating and will tolerate light shade and less desirable soils. To bloom and grow profusely, hibiscus must have enough water. Some cultivated varieties, will actually tolerate flooding. As with most other plants watering should be done thoroughly and not too frequently. Some protection from strong winds is necessary since the main canes can be broken. If this occurs during the growing season, removal of the broken section will stimulate side shoots which ultimately results in more blooms.
Perennial hibiscus flowers removed from the stem are popular for table decorations. They need not be placed in water to prevent wilting which adds flexibility to their use. Each flower lasts a full day before withering. If one wants flowers for the evening, blossoms should be cut as soon as they are fully open in the morning and placed in the refrigerator until just before using. Following the refrigeration period, flowers should remain open for at least four hours. This is the ONLY flower of this size in the world which will not wilt when displayed out of water for such a long period of time. It is a perfect, spectacular flower to take to hospitals or convalescing people. Old flowers and seed pods should be removed to encourage flowering. Another cut flower advantage of Moy Grande is one of its parents, H. grandiflorus, is fragrant giving Moy Grande fragrance as well.
Remember that this hibiscus is a root hardy perennial (top declines in autumn and the plant sprouts from the base the next spring). Applying a loose mulch such as hay, straw, grass clippings or leaves around the base of the plant before cold weather can prevent injury in severe winters. Certain varieties are more susceptible to cold damage than others. Following the spring and summer growing seasons, the plants freeze back to the ground each fall. Old stems should be cut back to the ground. New shoots emerge by mid spring and the plants quickly develop handsome mounds of foliage and flowers by early summer.
Hibiscus can be used as container plants as well. Plants may be purchased early in spring or summer and placed in 20 gallon or larger containers. Containers should be used with a commercial potting soil which drains well. Regular watering of the plants is required, especially in the afternoon heat. Both a time release fertilizer and a water soluble fertilizer, each with minor nutrients, should be used from April through October. The first should be applied about every six to eight weeks as a top dressing and the latter once a week.
Growing hibiscus in containers with a proper potting mix avoids many problems for the gardener. This includes root knot nematode and cotton root rot so frequently encountered with plants grown in soil. Also, in severe cold (below 10 degrees F.) weather the plants may be moved to a protected situation. All hibiscus will experience the same pest problems as its cousin cotton. Leaf eating worms can be controlled using products containing Bacillus thuringiensis such as Dipel, Biological Worm Control and Thuricide. Most insecticides are not phytotoxic to hibiscus. Moy Grande has the advantage of having leaves with a fuzzy surface which is less appetizing to foliage Individual flowers last only a day, but each plant may flaunt a number of giant flowers at once. Few garden plants provide so much enjoyment for so little care. Now you can have a plant with the largest flowers in the neighborhood when you plant the new Moy Grande perennial hibiscus. The Moy Grande hibiscus produces the largest garden flower in the world. It is the second largest flower of any plant in the world and this is the first time it has ever been sold. If local nurseries do not have a supply of these very special plants in July, request that they order some from suppliers in San Antonion including Lone Star Growers, Mortellaro's or Peterson Brothers Nursery.
Many Texans enjoy and demand red flowers. This year your yearning for red will be filled by three spectacular reddish hibiscus never before available in this area.
LORD BALTIMORE ROSE MALLOW
(Hibiscus x 'Lord Baltimore')
This spectacular blooming perennial hibiscus has large fuchsia-red saucer-like flowers borne throughout the summer to frost. Zone 5-10.
RED RIVER ROSE MALLOW
(Hibiscus x 'Red River)
A selection bred by Dr. Sam McFadden of Somerville, Tennessee, with showy deep red flowers. The large cup shaped, wine-red flowers are accented by a white star in the throat and glowing yellow pollen. The foliage is an attractive maple-like with an apple green color. He crossed several H. mouchetus cultivars with H. coccinus (for red color) via H. miltaris (leaf form) to allow crossing. The H. mouchetus mallow seedlings were crossed with the commercial varieties 'Annie Jay Henning' (out of Ohio ) and 'Old Glory' (Reigel Brothers Nursery out of Georgia). Zone 5-10
FLARE ROSE MALLOW
(Hibiscus moscheutos 'Flare')
A selection, developed by Dr. Sam McFadden of Somerville, Tennessee. This showy perennial has large glowing (the name 'Flare' was used by the breeder to closely depict the color of this flower ,i.e., the color of a burning flare), fuchsia flowers. The maple-like emerald green foliage is very attractive on a compact plant. He crossed H. mouchetus ('Brilliant Cerise' and 'Clown (a California source) x H. mouchetus seedlings. He said that Flare is a carbon-copy of 'Brilliant Cerise' but the Flare seedling was chosen for compactness of growth and dark green color -- Dr. McFadden made a pretty good call! Zone 5-10.