The various and varied members of the mallow family are significant to Texas and the South, both culturally and horticulturally. After all, what would the South be without okra or cotton? And we celebrate the Confederate rose as one of the favorite pass-along plants of the South. This tall shrub hibiscus blooms in early fall, many with double flowers that change from white to pink to almost red in a single day. In addition, this plant family includes hibiscus, winecup, rock rose, marsh mallow, and althea (the rose of Sharon plant, not the Grateful Dead song). There is a mallow for every East Texas garden, sun or shade, sand or clay.
The Texas native Turk’s cap is a prized member of my shade gardens. Blooming in red, pink, or even white, they are nectar-rich favorites of pollinators that produce tiny apple-like fruits. I love to snack on these while working in the late-summer garden, spitting out the seeds as I walk down my paths … that are now lined with Turk’s cap from these seeds. We planted Turk’s cap at the Quitman Arboretum in the part-sun area of the water wise garden, where they grow and bloom with no supplemental watering once established. For those of you with sunnier gardens and some irrigation, Turk’s cap does equally well. While the plant will have many more blooms in sun, the leaves lose their soft tropical feel that they have in the shade garden. Turk’s cap freezes to the ground each winter, but quickly grows in the spring to a four-foot shrub. The plants spread with time, so plant it where there’s space for a larger clump.
Althea or rose of Sharon is not a Texas native but it is well adapted to this area. The old-fashioned althea grown by my grandmother was a large shrub with many single flowers that seeded everywhere. The newer hybrids are generally sterile with many colors of blooms: white, pinks, lavenders, purples, and even blues; the flowers can be single or fully double, many with dark centers. Rose of Sharon is a heat-loving plant, late to leaf out in the spring and later than most shrubs to bloom, so it is at its peak in summer when little else is blooming. This shrub blooms best in full sun and will respond to a part-sun location with fewer blooms. Prune minimally during late winter or early spring as needed to shape, as its form is naturally pleasing. If your plant experiences bud drop, check the watering, as this can be a response to too little water or the buds getting drenched by sprinklers or heavy rains. My favorite varieties of rose of Sharon include ‘Diana’, with pure white 4” blooms; Sugar Tip, with pale pink double blooms and variegated leaves; and Blue Chiffon with double blue blooms.
The final group of plants within the mallow family that I want to promote is the hibiscus. While some folks love the hot showy blooms of the tropical hibiscus featured on vintage Hawaiian shirts, I find that I prefer the blooms of the hardy hibiscus – I appreciate that they can fend for themselves through the winter. The plants die back to the ground with the first hard freeze (wait till early spring to cut back these dead stems), and return to become showstoppers in summer and fall in East Texas. The blooms last only one day, but an established plant will have dozens of buds opening over many weeks, starting in late June through the first frost. Some varieties called ‘dinner plate hibiscus’ have blooms that can be seven or more inches across! Cultivars with names like ‘Lord Baltimore’, ‘Kopper King’, and ‘Blue River’ have bloom colors ranging from white through pinks and into reds, and foliage ranging from green to reds to almost black. Recent collaboration between Texas A&M Agrilife and local grower J. Berry Nursery has produced a collection of hardy hibiscus called ‘Summer Spice’ Hardy Hibiscus. These plants expand the color range to coral, fuchsia, purple, and even blue. While the blooms may not yet be dinner-plate size, the introduction of new colors is very exciting.
Hardy hibiscus plants require minimal care and attention in your garden. Plant in full sun, with compost-enriched soil, provide a layer of mulch and plenty of water, then stand back and wait for the blooms. Typically these plants start blooming when the heat hits, so plant them where you need summer color. Watch out for leaf damage on your hardy hibiscus – hibiscus sawfly larva can skeletonize the leaves of your plants. Spray the leaves every ten to 14 days with a product containing neem or spinosad to keep these beasties under control while sparing your pollinators.
I think you’ll find that this broad variety of plants in the mallow family can provide blooms each summer, in your East Texas garden.
Lin Grado is the garden manager at the Quitman Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about mallows in the gardens. Join her and other volunteers each Wednesday morning at 9 at the Arboretum for gardening fun and fellowship.