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On the beauty of hibiscus flowers

I had my first introduction to plants in the Hibiscus genus when I was a boy. Rose-of-Sharon was a common dooryard shrub in the piedmont region of Virginia where I grew up, just as it is here in Western North Carolina.

In mid-summer, my cousins and I would amuse ourselves by trapping large bumblebees in the flowers. No problem: just wait for a bee to penetrate the back part of the blossom and then seal the petals shut with your fingertips. We must not have had a lot amusement options back then, since we spent a lot of our time harassing bumblebees in this manner.

Even then, I noticed the peculiar structure of the rose-of-Sharon blossoms, but it wasn’t until later on that I bothered to find out more about them and the other members of the Hibiscus genus, which belong to the mallow family of plants.

All mallows display five petals, within which the male stamen parts are united to form a long tube (or “staminal column”) that surrounds the female parts. Nectar is produced at the base of the petals that attracts pollinators deep into the flower and thereby into contact with the sexual parts.

Rose-of-Sharon is the only shrub in the Hibiscus genus that’s hardy in our region. Sometimes called Althaea by gardeners, the plant is native to Asia but was introduced into the British Isles over 250 years ago; indeed, it has been a part of our floral heritage for so long that it no longer seems “foreign” at all. It’s not uncommon to spot naturalized plants growing near old home sites that have “escaped” and made themselves at home with the rest of our native plants.

Which common garden plant displays the most striking blossoms? To my eye okra is the hands-down winner. The plant is a Hibiscus genus member native to the Old World tropics.

Another Hibiscus genus plants that has come to live with us — this time from Europe — is flower-of-an-hour (H. trionum), which has lovely sulphur-yellow petals and a purplish-black “eye.” As the common name indicates, the flowers last only a few hours. Unfortunately, it is more common in the Piedmont region of the state than here in the Smokies region, being reported from only Jackson and Watauga counties in Western North Carolina.

That brings us to the lone native Hibiscus species found in the Smokies region. But if we have to just have one Hibiscus of our very own, few wildflower enthusiasts would choose another in its stead.

That species is the swamp rose mallow (H. moshcheutos), which grows in moist woods, meadows, and marshes. Some authorities treat the pink-flowered variety and the white-flowered variety as separate species, but the current thought is that they are subspecies.

Here in the westernmost counties of North Carolina swamp rose mallow has been reported from Cherokee, Swain, Macon, and Haywood counties. To my knowledge, all of these represent reports of the whitish subspecies. No plant is more stunning when encountered in the wild. They lend a sub-tropical touch to our upland landscape.

The large deep-red rose mallows that put on late summer and early fall shows in yards throughout the region are derived from horticultural strains such as the “Hibiscus Southern Belle” types offered by many seed companies.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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