YOUR HOMETOWN GARDENER

Saturday, July 6th was very nice outdoors. There were some pretty good T’storms mainly in southern Archer and Clay counties plus pretty much anywhere south and east of here. One lone cell developed in western Wichita county and luckily came right over our house giving just shy of 2/10ths. Nothing at the nursery where we needed it most, but such is the nature of summer showers. Still nice to see The Rainmaker has not abandoned Texoma. The rain cooled air was much appreciated with temps in the 80’s most of the day.

I watched an interesting news segment on Channel 6 this past week. The city of Vernon has adopted the hibiscus as it’s official plant. They intend on becoming known as a “Hibiscus City.” This comes in response to a 10-year breeding program that resulted in the release of the very first blue colored hibiscus flower by Texas A&M.

I had been aware of the program through my longtime friend Bill Pinchak (PhD TX. A&M). Bill is a rangeland management scientist running the A&M Cattle Experiment station there in Vernon. However, his plant knowledge made him an obvious choice for the team that took on this endeavor. So, Bill would keep me posted when the blue flower became available.

On the way to making “blue” the team had collected many cold hardy hibiscus specimens. Acres of them. So now, having accomplished their goal with the new release, they decided to start giving away hardy hibiscus to local businesses and got the City of Vernon involved.

The folks in Vernon have several things working in their favor now. First and foremost they have an eager business community and active city leadership to bring this idea of “Hibiscus City” into reality. Second, they enjoy a reliable well system that has supplied water to Vernon even during the droughts that have plagued us all and dried up our reservoirs. I remember driving through Vernon one year when the rest of Texoma was restricted in outdoor water use. As I passed by a local fire station there were several lawn sprinklers going full blast at mid-day. I was shocked to say the least. Bill clued me in when I arrived at his house.

Hibiscus does like water. In fact, before Kraft invented the marshmallow made basically from puffed sugar, the term marsh-mallow referred to a member of the mallow family (hibiscus officianalis) that is found in marsh lands of the Southeastern U.S. From this plant a sweet white meringue could be made from boiling and whipping the seed pods.

Hibiscus is the state flower of Hawaii. For most gardeners the term hibiscus refers to the tropical species that is abundant on that island. Growing tropical plants in Vernon Texas would not be easy or practical. However, there are cold hardy species like hibiscus moschuetos known locally as “hardy” or Chinese hibiscus. Also, there are a fair number of hibiscus (as mentioned) that are found native to North America. Halberd leaf (hibiscus laevis) is native right here in Texoma and heart leaf (h. cardiophyllus) plus red hibiscus (h. coccinea) are also native to Texas. Both cotton and okra are members of the mallow family (malvavacea). Both were in the genus hibiscus until recently okra was placed in a new genus. Maybe cotton is still a hibiscus??

Could this Vernon project result in a hibiscus cultivar that is not only cold hardy but drought tolerant as well? I think it could. Although our native species are found mainly in wet spots, cotton has been a reliable “dry land” crop for years.

I have enjoyed a long history with Vernon College and the various garden clubs plus the City of Vernon itself. I want them to know I am behind this project 100%. It just happened by luck that as this news story was on the air Wichita Valley was running a sale on our Chinese hardy hibiscus. The seed that grew those plants came from Suzanne Butler, (retired from Vernon College and active Master Gardener, Three R member, and more) who lives in Chillicothe. I got my first native hibiscus from my Mom’s gardening friend who lived in Knox City. Small town folk…. Hard to beat!

So, if you want to go to the extra trouble of growing tropical hibiscus you have my blessing… Been there, done that. Just be aware that there are hibiscus that can remain outdoors here in Texoma. Most of those sport blooms that are just as colorful and even larger than their tropical cousins. Names like “Frisbee” and “Pie Plate” describe some of these hardy cultivars. My favorite for the time being is “Lady Baltimore,” a hybrid of several different native species. And now there is a blue one…

I don’t have the “blue” version yet or even know the lineage or how many crosses that they made to achieve it. But I bet I will before too long. Kudos to our neighbors up in Vernon. Wichita Falls adopted crepe myrtle decades ago. Now what would be appropriate for Archer City? Open to suggestions… Come see us!

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