A rose by any other name … can be confusing


Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist

Several weeks ago stretched out in the hot tub at the Franklin Fitness Center, I happened to look out a sliding glass door and noticed a hibiscus shrub blooming near the back of the building, I commented about it and to my amazement someone knew its varietal name, “Sugar Tip.” So, I went home and looked it up. What I found is far more than I ever expected.

If you ever questioned why you should use plant scientific names read the following somewhat confusing account of name misusage.  The hibiscus shrub I noticed is commonly called Rose-of-Sharon. It grows successfully within our plant hardiness zone and is frequently seen in Franklin. Its other common name is Althea. This shrub is not a rose nor even a distant cousin. This common name Rose-of-Sharon has been applied to several different species of flowering plants from various parts of the world. Also, Rose-of -Sharon is a biblical expression appearing in the Old Testament Song of Salomon. It is speculated that the biblical Rose-of-Sharon was either a crocus, tulip, lily, of a type of rose not a hibiscus. The phrase is also used in lyrics, poetry and song.  And then the modern use of the Rose-of-Sharon name has been applied to Hypericum, several other hibiscuses, an iris and even a paeony. Sharon is actually a geographical location in Israel and also another location with the same name along the Jordan River. The geographical connections to this plant and its name are not clear as it is native to China.

The shrub at the Fitness Center is Hibiscus syriacus. Hibiscus comes from a Greek word meaning mallow.  It does belong to the mallow family which is distinctly different from the roses. Early observers likely thought this plant blooms looked like the perennial Marsh Mallow.  Syriacus refers to Syria where the first plant was described and presented to the scientific literature.  So, this suggests it was introduced into Syria before it had been described in the scientific literature as it is native to China. The first person to describe a plant in the literature gets the honor of naming it and that person’s name is attached. Thus the scientific name is Hibiscus syriacus L. L. stand for Linnaeus. Well known scientists’ names were abbreviated. 

 It has another common name, Chinese Hibiscus. But, be aware that there is a Hibiscus species sinensis that is also called Chinese.  H. syriacus is the national flower of South Korea.

 I cannot completely explain why this plant is also commonly called Althea.  Althea was the Greek goddess of healing.  There are some plants in the mallow family that have been used for healing purposes but not this species.  I would not suggest ingesting the leaves or seeds of Hibiscus syriacus L.

Hibiscus syriacus L. is easy to grow. It does not require special soils or uncommon amounts of water. For maximum bloom it does best in full sun. The trumpet shape blooms start opening in mid-summer and go on for several months. However, an individual bloom will only last for a couple of days. Great numbers of crosses have been made resulting in numerous cultivars varying in color from white to pink to lavender.  Pruning is not often needed except to open up the interior of the shrub by removing interior branches which allows more light into the center.

Not all is ideal about Hibiscus syriacus. It is labeled invasive.  Each bloom produces a seed capsule with numerous seeds that easily germinate at close to a 100% rate. Left unchecked a single shrub could produce hundreds of seedings growing underneath it.  The only solution to this problem is to pick off the spent blooms and seed capsules before they open.  Fortunately, the National Arboretum has produced several cultivars that are sterile – “Aphrodite,”‘Diana,” “Helene’and “Minera.” I do not know how available these selections are but a search would be worth it if you wanted to have these plants in your landscape. Finally, be advised that this shrub is messy as the spent blooms do not break down quickly after falling on the ground and it is a heavy bloomer. 

There is a brand of plants called Proven Winners, or PW. Two leading U.S. plant propagators, Four Star Greenhouse and Plantview Gardens, vigorously test plant varieties and introduce Proven Selections as the best, unique and high performing plants. This is a commercial venture.  Their plants are protected by patents. What this means is that no one else can use that chosen patent plant name. To mention a few – H. syriacus PW – “Blue Chiffon,” “Lavender Chiffon,” “Purple Pillar,” and “Sugar Tip.”  A few PVs are also sterile.

A few common diseases sometimes have to be dealt with such as Leaf Spot, Powdery Mildew, Botrytis and Root Rot. All can be treated with chemicals.

“Sugar Tip’s” patent name is actually “America Irene Scott.”  It was found as a single branch mutation on a hibiscus “Lady Stanley” by a Missouri nursery worker, Sharon Gerlet. No one knows who Irene Scott is or why her name was chosen. She could have been Sharon Gerlet’s Sunday school teacher for all we know. The branch with mutations was propagated. It has double pale pink flowers, is semi dwarf (slow growing) and does not produce seeds; it is sterile. Its leaves have a thin white band on the margins described as variegation. What could be confusing is that this plant is listed and sold as “Sugar Tip.” Sometimes a patent name does not have retail appeal so a brand or trade mark name is selected. So, this particular cultivar has two official cultivar names Hibiscus syriacus L. “America Irene Scott”- patent name and Hibiscus syriacus L. “Sugar Tip”- trade mark or brandname.

To round out this story – Althea is the title of a Graceful Dead tune “Althea”:

                    I told Althea I was feeling lost

                    Looking in some direction

                    Althea told me upon scrutiny

                     That my back might need some protection

                    I told Althea that treachery

                    Was tearing me limb from limb

                    Althea told me, now cool down boy

                    Settle back easy____

Enjoy the beautiful blooms of Hibiscus syriacus L. This also would be a good time to put on your seldom seen tie-dyed tee shirt if your grandchildren or moths have not taken it.

Dr. Bob Gilbert, now lives in Franklin is cofounder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw Ga.

Karen Lawrence is a prefessional photographer of botanical subjects and wildlife is from Franklin, N.C.Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist

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