A dainty hibiscus with delicate pink flowers graces our garden.  It is a forest margin plant that grows wild mostly in the eastern parts of South Africa at low altitudes. It is nowhere near as well known as the popular exotic Chinese Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosasinensis) grown as an ornamental, but this indigenous South African plant is becoming increasingly adopted as a garden plant.

I was surprised to learn that there are nearly 60 species of hibiscus native to South Africa, ranging from low-growing herbs to shrubs and trees. But despite this fact, even here in South Africa the name Hibiscus is likely to conjure thoughts of tropical islands and travel brochures featuring cocktails served in coconuts and decorated with scarlet flowers. The Polynesian islands and Hawaii spring to mind …

Exotic and indigenous hibiscus flowers in Hawaii

Copied from Google Images, the red flowers (above left) are most likely Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, which although exotic are more likely to be associated with Hawaii than the indigenous yellow-flowered Hibiscus brackenridgei (pictured on the right above), which is the Hawaiian State flower

Far less showy and redolent of suntan oil than the Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is our rather more petite Forest Pink Hibiscus (Hibiscus pedunculatus). It is also known as the Pink Mallow. Hibiscus species belong to the large Malvaceae (mallow) family, comprising more than 2000 diverse species, which include cocoa, cotton, okra and baobab. 

Flower of the Forest Pink Hibiscus native to South Africa

A flower of the Hibiscus pedunculatus showing its glowing rather than delicate pink

The flowers of the Forest Pink Hibiscus attract pollinators, and the insects in turn attract birds. Although each flower only lasts a day the plant is a generous flowerer and has a long flowering season. It does well in sun or dappled shade, flowering less in full shade. In the wild the colour of its flowers can vary from pale to a deeper pink through to lilac.

Forest Pink Hibiscus flowering in a suburban garden, KwaZulu-Natal

In addition to the showy flowers, the lobed leaves are also attractive

Deep pink flowers of the Forest Pink Hibiscus, South Africa

Flowers of the Forest Pink Hibiscus hosting tiny pollinators

Not only is the Forest Pink Hibiscus a generous flowerer it is also a generous self-seeder. I watch out for the seedlings that show up around the parent plants so as to establish some of them in pots until they are big enough to plant out elsewhere in the garden or to give away. The Forest Pink Hibiscus can also be propagated from cuttings.

Its bark is used in traditional medicine to treat urinary complaints and it is also used to make twine that can be used in hut building.

Stamens and pistils of the Forest Pink Hibiscus

This close-up shows the stamens and pistils characteristic of hibiscus flowers

In addition to the flowers themselves, I also enjoy the attractive seeds. They last a long time on the plant before opening up and appearing to literally burst into seed.

Seedheads of the Forest Pink Hibiscus (Pink Mallow)

Two Forest Pink Hibiscus flowers of different ages going to seed

Seedhead of the Forest Pink Hibiscus with insect, South Africa

A slowly maturing seedhead providing a perch for a long-legged insect (which I have not yet identified)

The Forest Pink Hibiscus is the only Hibiscus we have growing in our garden. But further afield and in a variety of habitats there are numerous species of wild hibiscus, many bearing yellow flowers with dark centres, ranging in size from small low-growing herbs to shrubs to the Lagoon Hibiscus, which is classed as a tree.

Yellow flower of an indigenous hibiscus, South Africa

One of the indigenous yellow-flowered hibiscus (possibly Hibiscus calyphyllus?) photographed at Ithala Game Reserve earlier this year

Flower of the Large Yellow Wild Hibiscus, South Africa

A close-up showing the dark centre of the flower

When looking up traditional uses for hibiscus in the book People’s Plants, the only hibiscus it mentions is the Lagoon Hibiscus (Hibiscus Tiliaceus), which is referred to in the book as the Wild Cotton Tree. As previously mentioned, commercial cotton plants also belong to the Malvaceae family, but in a different genus (Gossypium).  However, the Lagoon Hibiscus is used for its bark rather than for anything resembling cotton. Its fibrous bark is similar in quality to jute and it is made into rope or twine. The wood is used for a variety of purposes including making living fences and it is used to make fish kraals that trap fish in Kosi Bay (a marine estuary in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal).

The Lagoon Hibiscus is found in tropical areas across all continents (except Europe) and in the Pacific Islands. It is a coastal species and is known by many names including the Beach Hibiscus. It grows alongside lagoons and rivers and is salt tolerant. It can reach a height of up to 9 metres. Interestingly, the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, perhaps as a marketing ploy, has been dubbed the Hibiscus Coast.

Unfortunately, I have very few photographs of the Lagoon Hibiscus in my photo archive, but I did find a few. Flowers start off yellow in colour, but I only found a photo of a flower deepening to apricot as it matures before turning a rusty red just before it drops off the tree to the ground. As in the Forest Pink Hibiscus, each flower lasts only a day.

Lagoon hibiscus and flower at Kosi Bay, South Africa

In the photos above, a glimpse of a thicket of multi-stemmed Lagoon Hibiscus growing on the inland shores of Kosi Bay, and a flower, well patronised by insects, turning apricot in colour as it matures

A mature flower of the Lagoon Hibiscus, South Africa

Also at Kosi Bay, a mature flower of the Lagoon Hibiscus, fallen to the ground

Flower of the Forest Pink Hibiscus gone to seed

Sources: Achigan-Dako, E.G., 2011. Hibiscus tiliaceus L. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. https://uses.plantnet-project.org/en/Hibiscus_tiliaceus_(PROTA);  Boon, Richard. 2010 (2nd ed.). Pooley’s Trees of Eastern South Africa. Durban: Flora & Fauna; Pooley, Elsa. 1998. A Field Guide to Wild Flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region. Durban: Natal Flora Publications Trust; Van Wyk, Ben-Erik and Gericke, Nigel. 2007. People’s Plants: A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa.  Pretoria: Briza; Viljoen, Cherise. 2010. Hibiscus pedunculatus. PlantZAfrica. South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). http://pza.sanbi.org/hibiscus-pedunculatus

Posted by Carol

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