Like aspiring Hollywood actors, there are some lesser known fall-blooming garden plants that perform brilliantly in our gardens, but are rarely found in the marketplace. These plants have beauty, talent, and the ability to make passersby stop for a longer look. Some of them have even been around for a long time. Nevertheless, they aren’t as easily recognized from the street as garden mums, asters, or goldenrods.
As a self-appointed publicity agent for lesser-known plants, I would like to promote Confederate rose in this month’s issue. Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis) was new to me when I arrived in South Carolina I first heard about it from the late Jim Wilson, the former cohost of PBS’ The Victory Garden. Mr. Wilson told me that this Chinese native has been passed along over the years by generations of southern gardeners.
When I first saw this plant in bloom one October morning several autumns ago, I had to stop the car to take a closer look. Standing over 10 feet all and taking up more than 5 feet of lawn, this woody, multistemmed shrub had red, pink, and white peonylike flowers—all on the same plant. I was awestruck.
True to its species name—mutabilis—which means “changing”, Confederate rose flowers open up white and then change to pink and then to red before they begin to fade. Some cultivars of Confederate rose, such as ‘Plena,’ have double-flowers that change from white to pink. ‘Flore-plena’ is a common cultivar that has double pink, camellialike flowers. Two cultivars with single flowers include raspberry-red flowered ‘Raspberry Rose’ and the scarlet colored ‘Rubus.’
Confederate rose prefers full sun to partial shade in a well-drained location. In the Piedmont, the woody stems die back to the ground when temperatures drop to 15 degrees F. However, new shoots slowly emerge in the spring.
Confederate rose may never get the lucky break it deserves to become famous, mostly because it spends most of the growing season looking rather ordinary with large, fuzzy, sycamorelike leaves. It’s also relatively pest-free, and so demands little attention or interest from gardeners for most of the time. It’s not until late September and October when Confederate rose makes its debut that people take notice. Believe me, it’s worth waiting to see her in bloom.
Unfortunately, Confederate rose is not very common in the nursery trade. It’s probably because it’s difficult to sell a plant without flowers. Thankfully, we can always find the opportunity to befriend someone who’s already growing a Confederate rose with the hope of receiving a handful of passalong cuttings.
With the owner’s permission (who has now become your new best friend), take a few cuttings now and root them in water. Jim Wilson said that his wife Jane used to overwinter cuttings in a pail of water. In the spring she potted them up and passed them along to friends and acquaintances. I’ve rooted a few cuttings in water and found that they’re perfect confidence-builders for people who are timid or inexperienced at rooting garden plants. There’s nothing to it. Just put them in water and stand back.
One piece of advice that Jim Wilson shared with me: “Don’t plant Confederate rose unless you like havin’ lots of company.”
© Bob Polomski 2015