This month's feature plant has a long story dating back to the 1970s and has a fascinating history. From boyhood dreams of plant creations to a very special plant that vanished, to the painstaking creation of 20,000 contending plants and the narrow 4 week crossing window to create just one star plant. Welcome to the fascinating world of the 'Chiffon' Series of Hibiscus, a fanciful exotic that has managed to secure its place in our European gardens.
Bringing a piece of your holiday home
We all love summer holidays and basking amongst vivid Bougainvillea, Plumbago and other high resolution beauties, but very often we get home and find these plants simply won't grow in our own gardens. However, Hibiscus syriacus is one exotic that is actually hardy to -25C and that you can plant into your own garden. Despite being 'hardy', initial species and varieties were quite flower-shy. However, one man has been working tirelessly to make sure this plant performs where summer sun isn't always a guarantee...
But, first, what's different about these plants?
When on holidays, you may spot Hibiscus rosa-sinensis and Hibiscus moscheutos, however they are tender plants and taking a cutting home in your suitcase would only raise a plant needing greenhouse care. However, Hibiscus syriacus is a hardy species, which creates a fine plant with an erect shape, oak-like foliage, and medallion flowers in a range of colours.
When grown in cooler climates, this is usually a shrub that can panic the home gardener, as the leaf shoots appear quite late into May, extremely slow to wake from their winter slumber. The flowers on the species and vintage clones may not open fully either, shy in a cooler climate and prone to weather damage. However, that was all about to change...
Assembling the genetics
Plant Breeder, Roderick Woods had dreamt of creating new clones of Hibiscus since he was younger, and used his scientific skills in order to set about creating a range. First, he needed to assemble the clearest and best colours of Hibiscus syriacus.
By a tragic twist of fate, a perfect pink clone that he first spotted along the roadside in Biarritz, France sadly eluded him. On first sighting, he didn't take any material. A few years later, on a family holiday, he insisted on going back to find it, much to the disgust of his young children, but instead found a redeveloped road in it's place! A promising plant lost to bulldozers.
He asked around, but his plant contacts around the world had no knowledge of such a pink Hibiscus, and Roderick indeed wondered if it had been a summer illusion! However, he later managed to track down similar slightly pink clones in gardens around the foothills of the Pyrenees. In a typically French way, the plant didn't technically 'exist', but had probably been passed from village to village, keen gardener to keen gardener, for centuries. He was granted permission to take seedlings from beneath the plants, and went on to create a vibrant pink, better than any than came before.
During the 80s, Roderick also turned his attentions to creating the perfect blue. He wanted a clear, forget-me-not blue, rather than the usual blue- overlaid with pink. He created a far superior blue, and had been using older variety 'Bluebird' as his benchmark. By this time, Roderick had assembled some of the most vibrant colours in Hibiscus syriacus, but there was quite a surprise just around the corner.. and which gave rise to a totally new and different flower form.
The selection of the 'Chiffon' style of bloom began in the late 80s, as Roderick was surprised by a package from Dr Tachibana at the Osaka Botanic Gardens, who had responded to Roderick's search for pink Hibiscus syriacus. Dr Tachibana sent him some seed of his own pink clone in the parcel, but he also included another variety, where each bloom has an extra layer of petals. Much crossing ensued, resulting in strong, rosette-like blooms, with clones in 'Blue','Lavender', 'Pink', 'Magenta' and the show-stopping 'Starburst' varieties.
Not only were these blooms double, but they were larger than a standard Hibiscus syriacus at 10cm across, and they had been selected in a Northern European climate, so opened wider and more fully than the older species and varieties. The result was an incredibly exotic looking plant, a true indulgence for any plant lover, gardening in almost any climate.
Roderick had had the dream, and made it into reality!
Where can you plant 'Chiffon' Hibiscus?
A handsome shrub for the garden or large patio container, with foliage similar to an oak leaf. The erect habit plays host to a carnival of summer blooms from mid July to late September, thanks to Roderick's careful selection, and it is a plant which thrives in the lower light levels of Northern Europe. The Chiffon Hibiscus prefer a moist, well-drained soil and a very sunny position. Once established, plants are trouble-free and pruning is minimal, simply tidy them up after blooming.
Where can you buy this plant?
The 'Chiffon' series of Hibiscus has become much sought after, but thankfully efficient production means it is easy to find in most garden centres and mail order outlets. You can find a wide range here.
How to grow 'Chiffon' Hibiscus:
Flowering time: July to September
Location: Hedging, patio pots, borders
Soil: Moist, but well-drained and well fertilised
Light: Sun, with shelter from winds
Hardy: Survives down to -25C! Plant will come back every year.
Care: Very easy pruning, just trim as needed, after flowering. When growing strongly shorten new growths by one third to a half after flowering. Prune before April.
Size: 120cm (48”) high x 90cm (36") in spread in five years, can grow to double this size.
Plant of the Month is sponsored by Plantipp, a company based in The Netherlands who handle the introduction of new plants into Europe.
See every Plant of the Month here.
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