(althaea, althea, rose of Sharon)
Malvaceae (mallow family)
Zones 5-9 (all of the South)
These beautiful shrubs have been
neglected and their advantages for lawn decorations, as single
plants or in clumps or hedges, overlooked. They bloom from May
till fall, during our hottest, driest weather, when flowers are
scarce. They do not require watering, and demand little attention.
They are decided acquisitions to any flower garden. Rosedale Nurseries
Catalog, Brenham, Texas, 1899.
Hibiscus syriacus is a native of
India and China. In China where it has been cultivated for as
long as records exist, both the leaves and flowers were used as
food. In 1597 Gerard planted seeds of the "Tree Mallow" and in
1629 Parkinson cultivated it. In 1759 Miller described seven kinds:
"the most common hath purple Flowers with dark Bottoms, another
hath bright purple Flowers with black Bottoms, a third hath white
Flowers with purple Bottoms, a fourth variegated Flowers with
dark Bottoms, and a fifth pale yellow flowers with dark Bottoms
but the last is very rare at present in the English Gardens; there
are also two with variegated leaves which are by some much esteemed."
In 1778 Abercrombie called the plant "the greatest ornament of
the autumn season, of almost any of the shrubby tribe..." Double
flowered forms aren't mentioned until 1838 when Loudon said they
Althaeas have been in southern gardens
from the beginning of our gardening heritage. Thomas Jefferson
planted althaea seeds at Shadwell in April of 1767 and set out
plants at Monticello in March of 1794 and also at Poplar Forest
in December of 1812.
Althaeas were carried by almost all
early southern nurseries dealing in ornamentals. In a poll of
19 nurseries from 1851-1906 16 of them offered althaea, making
it the most popular southern nursery plant, just ahead of arborvitae,
honeysuckles and roses. Thomas Affleck's Southern Nurseries, at
Washington, Mississippi, listed "Fine new double Althaeas, a dozen
sorts" in the 1851-52 catalog. Montgomery Nurseries (Alabama)
also listed althaea in their 1860 catalog. Established in Brenham
in 1860, one of the earliest in Texas, Rosedale Nurseries stated
in a 1901 catalog: "We can supply about twenty named varieties
in Single and Double; White, Pink, Red, Purple, and all their
modifications and combinations; also the Variegated-leaved, with
Althaeas, in all their forms, are
still supremely adapted to our gardens today. The future may even
be better however. In the sixties, the late Dr. Donald Egolf,
formerly of the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and well
known for his many crape myrtle hybrids, developed a series of
sterile triploids which have larger, earlier flowers, and little
to no seed development. They are: 'Diana' (white), 'Helene' (white
with maroon throat), 'Minerva' (lavender), and 'Aphrodite' (pink).
These new types have grown just as well for me as the old standards.
They seem to bloom a bit earlier and have larger flowers. I have
had some seed development however.
There is also an almost true pale
blue one named 'Bluebird' which will form the background of the
blue section of my newly evolving rainbow border. Unfortunately,
I'm having trouble finding enough glass Milk of Magnesia bottles
for my blue bottle tree, the "focal point" of the border. What
would Gertrude think?
Althaeas are very easy to cultivate
in just about any soil that is well drained and located in part
to full sun, preferring the latter. They are, however, susceptible
to cotton root rot in areas with alkaline soils. They can be grown
as either shrubs or limbed up to small trees. Propagation is by
seeds, if you aren't picky about the offspring, or cuttings rooted
under high humidity.
Most people have quit using Althaeas
today in favor of the more popular crape myrtle. In this new era
of plant diversification and old fashioned plants, the time is
right for the rose of Sharon to obtain her rightful place as the
queen of the southern garden...or at least a princess.