8/07/2009

Roadside Native Hibiscus

This morning Felder Rushing called and asked me to be a guest on his Friday morning radio show, The Gestalt Gardener. We talked about easy things people can do when they're new to growing herbs, including things to get kids interested in gardens. (He's just been to visit the Huntsville Botanic Garden 2 days after I was there, so we missed each other by only a short while). If you'd like to listen to his show, click this link and go to the archives. The show's fun and people call in with their gardening questions. I've known Felder for many years through Garden Writers of America and he's crazier than I am at stopping and photographing strange, unusual or weirdly wonderful things on his trips. Check out his website and you'll see what I mean! Felder's the author of a bunch of books and speaks often at flower & garden shows, conferences, etc. and like me, prefers to drive and see what's along the way, camera always at the ready. (That's Felder's Gestalt Gnome, on the left, I just borrowed the image for this post). Felder ended the show with what he said was a song, "Just for you, Jim," Rosemary Clooney's, "Come On-a My House." Little did he know, I liked Rosemary Clooney's songs as a kid.

When I go on long drives across the country to lecture, I botanize as I drive. I found, about 3 decades ago, I can spot and fairly well identify a plant when I'm going 55 mph, provided there's no traffic. Not that I can observe the little details of a plant, and sometimes I'm wrong, but driving along, meditating on the world, I can spot a ditch iris or a spider lily growing in a roadside ditch, even if it's surrounded by weeds. I can spot a few ripe blackberries or notice a couple of muscadines hanging in a tree across the fence from the highway. I can often see a variation in a plant color in a colony of single colors. I love plants and I look for them, and at them, everywhere. In my opinion, the whole world's a garden, that garden just has to compete with the highway mowers and roadside herbicide sprayers and chainsaws and neighborhood lawnmowers.

As I was driving along Interstate 40 between Memphis and Little Rock last week, I was admiring the continuing miles of native hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos). These are the same hibiscus I grew up with, growing in the ditches and marshes areas along the Osage River in west central Missouri. Mostly they're white with a red throat. Once in awhile you'll encounter a light pink one. (By the way, the French, when they owned most of the land in southern and central U.S. before the Louisiana Purchase, named the Osage River, the Marais des Cygnes, which is French for “Swan Marshes," which refers to the marshes that were once prolific, and that is where these same native hibiscus once grew).

But there I was, trucking along about 65 or 70 mph, and I spotted a beautiful pink hibiscus smack in the middle of a ditch full of white ones. The clouds were moving fast and the sky was darkening. I saw the hibiscus too late to stop, there was too much traffic, trucks bigger than mine were on my bumper. I thought I'd simply go on to the next exit and turn around and find the flower again and take a photo.

Just then I noticed a virtual herd of huge, roadside mowers ahead, mowing down the "brush and weeds" on both sides of the interstate. I hoped I could collect some seed before the mowers got there. Why? The occasional pink hibiscus is a natural hybrid, not that unusual, but still worth collecting. The various hybrids that have been released by seed companies and nurseries over the years, all trace their parentage back to this same native hibiscus.

It was 10 miles down the road before there was an exit, more than I had anticipated. I crossed over the highway and drove the 10 miles back to another exit, then back on the road looking for the hibiscus. The mowers were creeping closer and it was beginning to rain.

I spotted the pink hibiscus and pulled off the road onto the grass, well away from the rushing tractor trailers and fast moving traffic. I walked over with my camera and saw the plants didn't have mature seed. A shame, since they would soon be mowed to the ground by the approaching mowers.

These native hibiscus, as I mentioned, are the mother of the big plate-sized hibiscus we grow in our gardens and you can read more of that story here for more details. They're a long blooming shrub, often having flowers for 6 or 8 weeks and are lots easier to grow than the tropical hibiscus varieties (and with much larger flowers, too). They'll grow as far north as Zone 4 and as far south as you can go before walking off into the ocean. Give them sunshine and most any kind of soil - although moist soil is preferred, and they will grow and bloom. They've been used medicinally in folk medicines for centuries, the stems provide a very good weaving fiber, and the flowers make a colorful and pleasantly tart tea. (By the way, the darker the flower, generally the more tart and tasty the tea).

I wanted the seed because I would like having that particular one in my garden. Of course had there been miles of pink hibiscus and there were only a couple of white ones in the midst, my impulse would have been the same. Gardeners want to grow what's unusual and what their neighbors don't have. This pink variation among the white ones isn't that unusual and I spotted a few more pink ones as I continued my drive. But that one pink hibiscus did get photographed before the mowers got to it and this week, if you pass by, you'll see what appears to be a neatly mowed roadside with no hint of the beauty that was there last week. Nor will you notice the bees and butterflies that were flying about as I was photographing. I'm sure we need clean roadsides, but the ditch, 100 feet or more off the highway didn't seem to be a threat to anyone and the highway drive along Interstate 40 was certainly more interesting when it included millions of bright hibiscus blossoms and a few pink ones scattered in!

1 comment:

Jamie and Randy said...

Boy those flowers sent me back to my childhood. They grow everywhere around south Alabama. My momma and grandmama called it "wild okra". :-)--Randy