On Gardening: Panama Red hibiscus puts on a maple-like show in summer

August 17, 2015

Panama Red hibiscus with its purple-black foliage serves as a great backdrop for all colors of flowers including this golden bromeliad, angelonias and pentas.

No plant can stir up a conversation this time of the year quite like the false roselle or African rosemallow. The reason it stirs up the conversation is that a huge percentage of the visitors think it is a Japanese maple. Indeed the selling point of the plant is the incredible foliage.

Those gardeners who do grow it probably donít refer to it by a common name like Cranberry hibiscus or even its botanical name which is Hibiscus acetosella. Instead most refer to it by its varietal names, including Haight Ashbury hibiscus or Maple Sugar hibiscus.

Hibiscus acetosella is a tropical hibiscus grown mostly for its foliage ó at least that is why I like it. As its common name suggests it is from Africa. We are growing several of the variety Panama Red at the entrance to our new visitor and education center at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah, Ga. The foliage is simply dazzling. Itís indeed like having a fiery dark purple-red maple showing off all summer.

Panama Red has become one of the top varieties in the market and has been selected as a representative in the Southern Living line of outstanding plants. It will reach 5 to 6 feet in height with a spread of 3 feet. Its habit is more rounded than that of Red Shield and has leaves that are more dissected. Dr. John Ruter with the University of Georgia is credited with making this award-winning selection.

The colorful blackish purple foliage allows them to be grown with just about any other color of summer flower. The darker purple-red forms are an awesome partnership with ornamental grasses and zinnias such as the Profusion series. We are growing ours with the large Golden Bromeliad, Serena angelonia and Graffiti Red Lace pentas. In other areas we have them with Compact Electric Orange SunPatiens and Blue Plumbago.

Over the years I have seen some beds partnered wonderfully as a backdrop to gold coleus, pink pentas and blue fan flower or scaevola. You can use it in a cottage-style garden, or combine it with coarse-textured foliage like bananas as if you had a home on the island of Martinique.

Plant Panama Red or any other variety you choose in fertile, well-drained soil with plenty of sunlight. Full sun gives the most intense foliage color, but I assure you a little afternoon shade or filtered light will still entice you to bring out the cameras.

Drought tolerance and heat tolerance are two noteworthy attributes you will love about the plants, but there is one more trait most gardeners I deal with treasure, and that is that they are all considered deer resistant.

The literature has it all over the charts from the standpoint of cold-hardiness. Most say it is perennial from zone 9 to zone 11. Most report it is common to see them root hardy in zone 8. University of Georgia says to consider it a worthy annual. Mulch it well in the winter, and if yours comes back you received an added bonus.

If you live in an area with mild winters, gorgeous red flowers will appear. Such was the case for us last year with ours growing in containers on a protected porch. Every single visitor commented on the flowers, whereas itís typically the foliage causing all of the attention.

Whether it is in the landscape or as a thriller-plant in mixed containers, the African rosemallows like Panama Red, Maple Sugar and Haight Ashbury promise to perform all growing season. I hope you will give it a try.



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