By Jan TenBruggencate
On a slope next to a trail, just above a stream on Kaua‘i’s Na Pali coast, I came across a clutch of gorgeous tiny hibiscus flowers on a series of neighboring plants.
There was orange and yellow and red and shades between.
To the east, over the edge of the Waimea Canyon, there are big, white hibiscus with red stamens.
And a bonus. Most hibiscus don’t have a fragrance, but these canyon flowers do.
Hibiscus is native to the Hawaiian Islands, but varieties are also found elsewhere.
Plant breeders have worked for decades, creating hibiscus with bigger and denser and brighter flowers,
One thing that has been missing from the palate is blues. Hibiscus is readily found in whites, and reds, and oranges, and the Hawai‘i state flower is yellow.
But blue has been tough. Breeders in Texas have come up with a near-blue plum-lavender variety, but after four years and more than 1,000 crosses, they’re still working on getting a pure blue.
Researchers are also working toward reliably cold-tolerant hibiscus, because normally, it’s a warm-weather plant. Most hibiscus are native to tropical places including the islands of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific (including Hawai‘i) plus Asia and Australia.
Plant breeders around the world have worked with hibiscus, and they have created thousands upon thousands of named hybrids. Big flowers, tiny flowers, simple ones and ones with compound petals, curly petals and flat, petals that overlap and ones that stand alone, dark colors and bright light colors and most of the colors of the rainbow — along with some combinations that you don’t see in rainbows.
Folks in Hawai‘i have been hybridizing hibiscus since the late 1800s. One of the great hibiscus breeders of Hawai‘i i was August Miller, who named his varieties after people and things of the Islands. There’s a Dudley Pratt, and an Esther Suzuki and a Jean Lum, along with a Kona Sunset, a Roosevelt High, and a Hiwa Hiwa Nani.
Most breeders seem to go for flower form and color, more than smell. Like going for great red roses that don’t have that wonderful rosy fragrance.
That said, there are scented varieties, both among hybrids and native species. The native Waimea Canyon white, Hibiscus waimeae, is one of the scented varieties. But when you cross the scented varieties with others, the smell is often lost — so it’s an arduous process finding a great looking hibiscus that also smells great.
You can buy them, but hibiscus is also pretty easy to hybridize yourself — so you can create a hibiscus unique in the world. Look on the internet for tips on pollinating and germinating the resulting seeds.
That said, if you see one you like, it’s pretty easy with most varieties to simply take a cutting and stick it in the ground — that’s how we used to create hibiscus hedges when I was a kid.
Just make sure you ask the owner before you chop a piece off a prized hibiscus bush.
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.