We enjoy our Spring gardening season so much here in the deep Gulf South, but once we get to July and August and into the real dog days of summer, with near constant tropical deluges and sauna-like heat, our gardens can just look tired and not at their best. Many of the garden plants we use for seasonal color and pizzazz don’t manage our summertime combination of heavy rainfall and oppressive temperatures very well, but as usual - there’s a native plant for that!
Some of the most dramatic and colorful native plants for our area, with flowers sometimes as much as 8-10” across, are our native hibiscus species. These plants, in the Malvaceae family, also answer to common names like Rose Mallow, Swamp Rose Mallow, Crimson-eyed Mallow and yes, Marsh Mallow. The genus Hibiscus includes four species (aculeatus, grandiflorus, lasiocarpos, and mosheutos) that are native to Louisiana plus H. coccineus that is native to the United States but perhaps not Louisiana. Also garden worthy is Kosteletskya virginica, our native Saltmarsh Mallow. Found naturally in moist to wet areas up the eastern seaboard from Louisiana to New Jersey, all of these easy-to-grow plants shine in the summer heat and thrive here in our gardens.
Native mallows are herbaceous, long-lived perennial plants. Flower colors often vary in nature from white to shades of pink and even bright red in the case of Hibiscus coccineus, better known Scarlet Rosemallow or Texas Star Hibiscus. Hibiscus aculeatus, the Pineland Hibiscus or Comfortroot, can be a soft white to butter-yellow, reminiscent of an okra flower. Hibiscus moscheutos and H. lasiocarpus are usually “crimson eyed” having a distinctive red throat on white flowers. Halbeardleaf Hibiscus, H. laevis, is distinguished by its’ leaf-shape and can be found in many color variations. All have an impressive pollen-coated stamen that protrudes from the flower, making them particularly attractive to people and bees alike. Lots of breeding has been done with our native hibiscus species. Hybrids and cultivars abound in the nursery trade, including the LSU Super Plants, the Luna series.
In the wild, mallows occur in ditches, in or near swamps, lakes or rivers showing off their love for moist to wet, rich soil. While they are well suited to wet and moist areas, pond edges, and rain gardens which makes them the perfect stormwater management plant, they are equally as happy in the average sunny garden bed with adequate moisture. This time of year, it is often easy to spot these plants along our roadsides in ditches or in swampy areas. I often see pink mallows on the Lake side of the Bonne Carre’ spillway and have recently been seeing pale yellow Comfortroot on the sides of Highway 25 near Folsom blooming in wet swales.
Native mallows differ from non-native tropical hibiscus in that they go completely dormant in winter, leaving only upright tan-colored, hollow stalks standing. I find these stalks dramatic and interesting in the winter garden and rather than clip them down, I leave them standing. This not only marks where the plant is in the garden, but also provides perfect nesting spaces for native bees that rely on hollow plant stalks for rearing their young. I have also seen birds shred the dried, woody stems to make nesting material.
Most native mallow species can get quite tall, as much as 6-8’ or more, but the plants can be encouraged to branch by pinching the growing tip at an early stage before they set flower buds. As a plant matures, more and more flowering stalks will emerge each year from the crown, making for a bushier, fuller appearance. When flowering is finished, the large dry seed pods are easy to harvest, each containing many seeds to collect and share. They are super easy to grow and sprout quickly in regular potting mix, with no special preparation, under just a bit of soil. For some summer sizzle in your sunny garden, try these excellent, easy natives!
Tammany Baumgarten is a New Orleans Master Gardener and the current President of the Native Plant Initiative of Greater New Orleans. The Native Plant Initiative of Greater New Orleans will be hosting Mallow Madness, a native hibiscus give-away, on August 22nd, 8-10am, at First Grace Methodist Church, 3401 Canal Street in New Orleans. See the website, npi-gno.org for updates and more info.