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Monday, July 16, 2012

Cool Plants for Hot Days

(This post has been revised since it's original posting on July 16th, 2012. Additional photos and information including hyperlinks have been included.)

With the heat of summer here in full force, it's time for a favorite plant of mine to show its stuff. I'm talking about hibiscus or mallow by another name. This is one cool plant! I remember the first time I saw the native swamp mallow(Hibiscus moscheutos) in bloom along a roadside in eastern North Carolina. The creamy white flowers have a red center or eye atop of a leafy stem. The native habitat, by its name, is wet areas like swamps, wet ditches and pond edges.

Swamp mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
Hibiscus are perennial plants that start to bloom in June, peak in July and continue with fewer flowers into late summer/early fall. To see them in bloom you have to be up early. The flowers of native species open a hour or so after sunrise while many of the garden hybrids actually open at night provided the night temps are above 68° F. Unless the mornings are cool(below 60° F) all hibiscus flowers are fully open by 9 a.m. The flowers are short lived lasting less than a day. On hot,  windy days the flowers will close quicker than normal.

Bee visiting a hibiscus flower
Shooting tips:
Photographing a hibiscus in bloom requires perfect timing plus the right weather conditions. Since the flowers last only a few hours, I'm up by 7 a.m. to capture them at peak condition. At this time the air is still so using a longer exposure is possible. Over the past couple of weeks I've been out photographing the various varieties I have growing in my garden including a couple of rare natives.

Depending on the location lighting can be tricky. I have a large group of plants with an open exposure to the east so shooting at this spot requires doing so before 8 a.m. At this time I can make use of the soft, early morning light. Another group of plants in the garden are shaded until much later in the morning. Here I can wait at least another hour and a half before the sun creeps over the hedges. White flowers photographed in soft light or shade show up much better since direct sunlight will burn out the finer details in the petals.

A rare pink form of Hibiscus moscheutos
The best shooting conditions would be on a cloudy day with temps below 80° F. The light is nice and even, no harsh hot spots. From sunrise to 10 a.m. is when I shoot. By afternoon expect the petals to start closing. I love the days when it remains cloudy throughout the morning and after a previous night's rain. Everything is fresh and vibrant. Another point to remember is bees love hibiscus. These insects began to forge for nectar as soon as the flowers open so expect company to be buzzing around. One thing I don't really like is the bees are messy...they spill pollen all over the petals so a little cleaning may be in order.

Where to find hibiscus:

In previous years I have traveled to locations where hibiscus grow wild, but some of these spots proved to be a bit too risky. Since they typically are found along roadside ditches in standing water, stopping along a highway(especially busy ones) to shoot is less than ideal. There is usually not a lot of room between the edge of the road and the ditch. Combine that with zooming cars the plants rarely stay still. Most drivers take notice of someone standing along the road with a camera so this can be a distraction to a driver. Now I only shoot from locations with a good buffer zone from the highway.

If you want to go out looking for hibiscus, visit parks, botanical gardens, local nurseries, and of course natural environments like swamps, river floodplains and roadside ditches. Remember to get out early. Starting at sunrise and the next couple of hours are prime time. Take a morning drive along a country road or hike a trail along a river in mid-summer you are likely to find mallows saying “Good Morning” with open flowers.

Cultivated hybrids:

          Hibiscus 'Dunmoyer'                                   Hibiscus 'Cranberry Crush'

Hibiscus 'Pink Dazzle'                                      Hibiscus 'Peppermint Flare'



Native hibiscus species of the southeast: 

Hibiscus moscheutos 
swamp mallow

Overlapping creamy white petals with dark red or wine colored eye. 

Grows in swamps, marshes, wet ditches and pond margins.

Occurs from the mountains to the coastal plain.


Hibiscus moscheutos (pink form)
rose swamp mallow

Overlapping light to dark pink petals with dark red or wine colored eye. 

Grows in swamps, marshes, wet ditches and pond margins.

Known only from the coastal plain.                


 Hibiscus moscheutos (white form)
 white swamp mallow

Overlapping white petals with a very faint pink eye. 
Very rare. 

Grows in swamps, wet ditches and pond margins.

Only known from single location in the coastal plain.


Hibiscus coccineus
scarlet mallow 

Separate petals, bright red.
Uncommon north of FL. 
Escaped from cultivation in NC appearing native along roadsides and wet ditches. 

Available at nurseries, garden centers and botanical gardens.  

Hibiscus coccineus (white form)
scarlet mallow 

Separate petals, solid white.

Sold in the nursery trade as Hibiscus coccineus 'Swamp Angel'

Available at selected nurseries and botanical gardens.

Hibiscus laevis: halberd-leaved mallow – overlapping petals, pink or white with a purplish eye. Common

Hibiscus aculeatus: savanna hibiscus – overlapping petals, light yellow with dark purple eye. Common

Kosteletzkya virginica 
seashore mallow 

Slightly overlapping pink petals.
Grows in brackish to freshwater tidal marshes in the coastal plain. Blooms late August into September. 

These species has smaller flowers than hibiscus.

For more images of Cool Plants for Hot Days, check out my photo gallery at Flickr

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All images and content are ©2010 Kelvin Taylor

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