Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Hibiscus syriacus

Hibiscus syriacus 'Aphrodite'
Hibiscus syriacus | Rose of Sharon, Shrub Althaea, 무궁화 (Mugung-hwa), 木槿 (Mu Jin)

Hibiscus syriacus has been an American garden favorite for centuries. The third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson grew the Rose of Sharon in his gardens at Monticello. In fact, Rose of Sharon was one of the most popular shrubs in America up through the 1950s. More recently, the development of newer cultivars has revived its popularity. Despite its name, Hibiscus syriacus is endemic to parts of China and Korea, not Syria. It was dubbed syriacus back at a time when it was first brought to Europe and plants were mistakenly believed to have originated in Syria. In Asia, Hibiscus syriacus was cultivated from an early time, and was eventually distributed to the Middle East via trade routes which contributed to the nomenclature confusion.

Rose-of-Sharon is equally at home in formal or informal gardens, valued as a garden accent for its profuse flower display and strong upright growth habit. It will naturally grow into a ‘V’ shape, but with a little training, Rose-of-Sharon makes an excellent single-trunked standard. Hundreds of cultivars are presently available worldwide, with single, semi-double, and double types of flowers in a dazzling array of colors. The photo above, 'Aphrodite', is a hybrid of two earlier cultivars, H. syriacus 'Sokobeni-yae' x 'William R. Smith'. One of the unusual traits of Hibiscus syriacus is the “blue” flower color (more like violet to lavender) found in some cultivars. Some have conjectured that this color trait was eventually bred into the lavender to purple Hibiscus rosa-sinensis cultivars found today, but recent studies squelch this theory, stating that Hibiscus syriacus is too distantly related to, and sexually incompatible with Hibiscus rosa-sinensis*. Whatever the case may be, it is still somewhat of a mystery as to how this relatively recent color trait first appeared in modern Hibiscus rosa-sinensis cultivars.

Hibiscus syriacus along with Hibiscus paramutabilis and Hibiscus sinosyriacus form a group of 3 closely related hardy Hibiscus species (from section Hibiscus) that are indigenous to China. According to one source, Hibiscus sinosyriacus appears to be genetically closer to Hibiscus syriacus than Hibiscus paramutabilis*.

*An AFLP-based assessment of the genetic diversity within Hibiscus rosa-sinensis and its place within the Hibiscus genus complex Luca Braglia et al

EARLY HISTORY: Hibiscus syriacus is the national flower of Korea, and is even mentioned in the national anthem. The Korean name 무궁화 (Mugung-hwa) is derived from the word mugung, which means endlessness or immortality, and hwa which means flower. Mugung-hwa symbolizes a flower that blooms forever without fading. One of the first historical records of the Rose of Sharon in Korea is mentioned in an article from over 1,400 years ago. SanHaeKyung (산해경), an ancient Chinese geographical text, calls Korea "The Land of wisemen where the Mugung-hwa grows plentifully".

USES: Sturtevant notes 'In China, the leaves are sometimes made into tea or eaten when young'. Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of The World (1919, New York Agricultural Experiment Station). Edward Lewis Sturtevant (1842-1898) was a farmer, botanist, physician and author. His notes were edited after his death and published in 1919 by the New York Agricultural Experiment Station.

Historical Reference: SHRUBBY SYRIAN MALLOW. Hibiscus syriacus. This shrub is better known among gardeners and nurserymen by its old name of Althsea Frutex. French, ketmie; Italian, chetmia. This elegant shrub grows six or seven feet high, with many branches. The leaves are large, deeply cut into several divisions, of a cheerful green, and delicate texture. In August appear the flowers, which are mallow-shaped, large, and numerous. There are several varieties, differing in the colour of their flowers; one has white flowers, with a purple centre; another has yellow; some have several shades of purple, with white, and a black centre; some of rose colour and white, with a purple centre; and others are finely variegated with all these colours. In mild seasons, there is a succession of flowers till near the end of September.

This shrub is singularly beautiful; it is a native of Syria; is much cultivated in Cochin China; and, for hedges, in Japan. According to Parkinson, it was cultivated in England in 1529; and Martyn observes, that it was probably a new shrub at that time, as he sets it down as tender, to be kept in a large tub or pot, in the house or a warm cellar. Gerarde, in 1597, speaks of it as a stranger in England; adding, that he has sown the seeds in his garden, and is expecting their success.

   Sylvan Sketches
   or A Companion to the Park and the Shrubbery;
   by Elizabeth Kent, 1825