Magic seeds lead to hibiscusland

IMG_2661A particular plant becomes the object of our affection and takes over the garden. But this devotion can lead to monoculture, bringing with it an absence of variety that only pests love, jeopardising a garden’s eco-system. Monoculture imperils the organic method, even the semi-organic method that I follow.

A devastating Indian summer this year produced a terrible drought in the hinterlands around Pune where I live. The unseasonably high temperatures brought a plague of mealybugs to my sky-high garden. The cotton-covered, plump little voracious vampires never tired and they multiplied ceaselessly in the scalding summer heat and my garden’s hibiscus culture. On cooler Summer mornings, their winged forms would take to the air flying off to parasitise yet more plants. Despite many thorough once-overs, brushing them off all reachable plant parts, they would reappear a few hours later relentlessly polka-dotting all those just-cleaned plants, irrevocably mutilating the leaves on which they fed.


The heat and pests destroyed many of my tropical hibiscuses and I write this brief hibiscus history at the start of the Indian monsoon not so much as a cautionary tale, but simply to remember the garden in happier days.

A few years ago, one of my hibiscuses produced a mysterious seed pod. I had mostly been familiar with garden-variety hibiscus plants, the hibiscus rosa sinensis, grown by my grandmother, aunt and mother in hot, humid Kerala, India, on the outskirts of a town eight degrees north from the equator. My grandmother had used the common red-flowered tall hibiscus bush as her border plant of choice. The huge shrubs had shielded her property from the road beyond her land. These plants, however, had never produced seeds in my presence. If they did, the matriarchs had never pointed this out to me.

A still-green pod.

I noticed my mystery pod on my Pune terrace, which is 18 degrees north of the equator, brown and split open on a pale yellow garden variety maybe two months after the monsoon. Inside were three little seeds. They looked like they had come from a fairy tale. At that time, I had no idea where those black, vaguely kidney-shaped, hirsute seeds would lead me. Like Jack who bought some magic beans and planted them, I sowed my seeds out of curiosity and the plants that grew from those first seed took me to the clouds. The seeds were my admission currency into a virtual portal featuring magical gardens from around the world.

There was even history to be had for those who like to learn the origins of things. I discovered gardeners from around the world and even here in India growing the most incredibly beautiful, rainbow-tinted hybrids. I stumbled upon a wonderful story about a man, a horticulturist and plantsman named Ross Gast, who embarked on a remarkable round-the-world journey in the 1960’s to find the genesis of the modern hybrid hibiscus. As I delved into the details of his adventures, written down in epistolary fashion in a series of letters penned home from various exotic locations, I realised this was the botanical equivalent of a Jules Verne novel, except this wasn’t fiction.

One that grew from the first seeds, sadly it did not make it to flower

I followed him vicariously from island to island in the South Pacific and the southern Indian Ocean, and his excitement at chance meetings with ancestor plants in hidden gardens, deep jungle and herbarium records became my excitement. He was following the Polynesian migrations from thousands of years ago and the ancestors of the modern hibiscus seemed to have taken that same route. The ancient Polynesians would have taken their favourite plants and animals with them on their ingeniously buoyant proto-catamarans. The hibiscus should have been one of those ancient migrants.

cam01385.jpgOne popular theory locates my country India as land of origin of the ancient hibiscus. I live in the Western Ghats a uniquely diverse biological treasure trove where new fauna and flora are being discovered and studied as I write these words. In its deeply forested tracks there are many hibiscus species growing in the cool climes provided by the slopes of our Western hills. Even the cotton plant is technically a hibiscus. Cotton has been cultivated in India for thousands of years. As for okra, also speciationally hibiscus, its land of origin is possibly East Africa, although it is a very popular vegetable here in India. Cotton is grown extensively in the flat leeward lands on the black soils left behind by ancient volcanic eruptions produced when India split from the African section of Gondwanaland and drifted north towards what would become Asia. These primeval eruptions somewhere in an Indian Ocean hotspot beneath a northward-moving India was the generative force that created the Western Ghats. As for the Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis, a complex mix of several compatible species, the Polynesians seemed to have left behind a hibiscene garden trail on the coconut-fringed islands upon which they made landfall, even up to Hawaii. A trail many an intrepid botanist and nurseryman has followed sometimes to the detriment of the wild ancestral plant.

Lest I leave out an important detail, right there in the name of my favourite garden plant there is one clue to its origins _ China, the plant is officially Hibiscus Rosa ‘Sinensis’. An old story back in Kerala, Southern India, where my matriarchs loved this plant as much as I do now, states that travellers from China brought a distinctive type of conical red-tile roof architecture to Kerala. And maybe, even the garden hibiscus. Or, perhaps these travellers took the plant back with them. Nobody knows for sure. The ancient Chinese just as much as they loved to travel and explore foreign lands were also genius gardeners who invented grafting. Who knows if they came across the plant in China, India or South-East Asia and then took it upon themselves to cultivate this fascinating plant.

IMG_2677When Carl Linnaeus gave one ancestor of our modern hybrid the name Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis around 1753, this was because the first samples were probably acquired from China. But before him a Dutchman Hendrik Van Rheede, who became a governor in the land of my matriarchs had the idea of gathering local plant experts from that time to document the plants, including the tropical hibiscus, of the Western Ghats from Goa to Kerala. This was nearabouts 1678. And the book that resulted was Hortus Malabaricus.

In the Age of Wonder (subtitled: How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science) by Richard Holmes, there is a passage describing the great naturalist Joseph Banks’s first night in Tahiti. He was the official botanist on board HMS Endeavour, commanded by then lieutenant James Cook, which reached the island in early April 1769. Banks’s description of his first night ashore refers to breadfruit and white hibiscus in the hair of a Tahitian girl. From this, it appears the hibiscus was a common enough plant in Tahiti and a familiar one in 18th-century Britain, at least a familiar plant to a British botanist of that time.

Perhaps clues to the plant’s geographical genesis lie in the plethora of minerals it favours. It seems to prefer magnesium, potassium and hates phosphorus. A lot of my plants grown from seed began to develop chlorosis in the upper-most leaves. A little research online and I realised they needed more iron than was available in cocopeat or my home-made vermicompost. The red laterite soil in which the local garden-variety hibiscus grew did not seem to suit the plants that grew from seed either. As other plant addicts would report, each species is a riddle that a gardener gets to grips with as the days pass in communion with them and their myriad foibles.

What kind of a plant is thirsty for magnesium and iron but hates phosphorus? Could it be a plant that evolved on volcanic soils? It could be that the plants growing from seed in my garden have genes from the early 20th-century Hawaiian hybrids where the soils are of this type. The plant followed in the wake of the colonial expansion of the 19th century and began adapting to varied climes finally reaching Hawaii where the migrants were mated with native Hawaiian hibiscus. It is believed that plants from islands in the Indian Ocean as well as India were involved in the earliest hybridising in Hawaii. A lot of compatible species were hybridised and thus began the complicated genealogy of the modern tropical hibiscus. Or could the plant have taken this particular need for certain nutrients from an ancestral soil type in the Western Ghats or somewhere else similar, where basaltic lava once flowed millions of years ago? The Western Ghats is famous for its heavy red laterite soil, which is rich in iron oxide but poor in magnesium and potassium. How our garden variety adapted to these deficiencies is a mystery worth exploring. The plant now thrives on far distant isles in the Pacific where the soils also possess a certain vulcanicity.

Through the rabbit hole here in hibiscusland the wonders and puzzles never cease. Like Alice, I am eternally wonder struck. Despite the trying summer failures, I have chosen not to look back. Hibiscusland has turned out to be a beautiful place crowded with puzzles, joys and disappointments alike.

I found reference material for this blog at:

Hidden Valley Hibiscus

International Hibiscus Society

Hibiscus origin story from Kerala (PDF file: From an article that appeared in Hibiscus International, Volume 14, no. 1, Issue 58)

Hibiscus gene bank in India

An old blog: Mendelian miracle in the garden



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