Beautiful Native Plants

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Friday, February 19, 2016

Native Hibiscus? You Bet!

A showy native hibiscus with great wildlife benefit

Hibiscus moscheutos, swamp mallow,

People who say ‘natives aren’t showy’ have never seen our native hibiscus! Hibiscus moscheutos has a wide distribution in the continental U.S.; from New York down to Florida, and west as far as Utah. Like any plant that grows in so many places, it comes with a slew of common names: swamp mallow, rose mallow, rose-eyed and crimson-eyed swamp or rose mallow, hibiscus mallow, and even marshmallow hibiscus. More about that last one later! But by any name, this plant’s a winner!

Swamp mallow can be white or pink
Swamp mallow plants may have white, cream, or pink blooms. Each bloom lasts only one day, but can be 8 inches across and the blooming period can span several months. Bees and hummingbirds love these plants and are frequent visitors. The plants form three to four foot clumps with multiple stems, and can grow to heights of 7 or 8 feet in some places though here in Virginia most top out at about the four to five foot range. Leaves are ovate to elliptical and may have red veins.

      Growing swamp mallow

As you might guess, swamp mallow is found naturally in areas that are near, or even in, water, and it makes a super candidate for use in rain gardens. However, Janet Davis, who grows and sells this plant at her Hill House Farm and Nursery in Castleton, VA, says that  swamp mallow is more versatile than the name suggests. It does quite well in a variety of soils and sites.  If a garden is not wet, then afternoon shade or bright open shade all day will off-set the lack of moisture, she says;  and their deep taproots help them through drought conditions. Janet also notes that Japanese beetles love the leaves, but since the plant is tall and the blooms large, it can be placed in the background or a bit of a distance where the holes won’t bother anybody.

Red-wing blackbird dining on insects provided by swamp 
Swamp mallow has many benefits to a variety of wildlife. The seeds are eaten by many birds, including bob whites, and ducks. On land it provides cover for birds and insects, and in the water it provides cover for aquatic animal like frogs, muskrats, turtles, fishing spiders, and snakes.

Swamp mallow is a member of the family, Malvacea, or mallow. In ages past, another Malvacea, the marsh mallow, was the source for a juice extracted from the mashed roots. When mixed with sugar and egg white, this juice turned into a concoction used first as cough suppressant before it went totally to the dark side and morphed into the candy, marshmallow, that we know today.

Swamp mallow is easily grown from seed. Be sure to look for pods that have not been attacked by weevils. Weevil damage can be detected by the presence of holes in the sides of the pods. Harvest the seeds when you find them and store in the refrigerator until spring. Seed pods of Hibiscus moscheutos make great additions to flower arrangements,  and are interesting for children to examine, too. The seeds are black, shiny, and round, and packaged in neat little compartments. 

In July at  Huntley Meadows, Fairfax County, Virginia, the blooming Hibiscus moscheutos looks almost like a field of cotton, another of its relatives in the Malvacea family. If you’re near the area, this is great place to visit, with a boardwalk that gets you right out into the wetland for close-up viewing.
Blue heron standing behind blooming swamp mallow plants

Give this showy native a try; and if you have a rain garden opportunity in your yard or community, you definitely want to use a few swamp mallows. Plant More Plants has made a variety of free downloadable plans for you to use in rain gardens in a variety of settings: borders, corners, as hedgerows and with trees:  Plant More Plants Rain Garden Plans

Native Plants Bring LIFE to your landscape!

Sue Dingwell