Not a Rose and by Another Name

For some reason I don’t like the shrub that we call the “rose of Sharon.” It is planted widely because it flowers now, when most other flowering shrubs are finished blooming, and it is also quite hardy and requires little care. It also flowers abundantly for several weeks. When you look more closely at a bush in bloom you can easily spot the numerous buds in various stages of opening.

Hibiscus blossom (Photo: Eric Kounce)
Hibiscus blossom (Photo: Eric Kounce)

There is something dumpy and middle-aged looking about a rose of Sharon shrub. The leaves are coarsely toothed and their surfaces are often disfigured by infestations. The bark is gray and rumpled looking. The flowers have papery petals that are ridged like a crinoline dressed. The sexual organs of the plant are prominent, protruding well beyond the rim of the tubular corolla with the stamens protruding along the final eighth of the organ and the pistils clustered at the distal end.

Having declared my mild dislike of the plant, I would say that this means I wouldn’t plant one in my yard. However, as I find myself moving into a house with a seven-foot specimen in the side yard, my first impulse was to help it recover some dignity. It seems to have been simply let to grow without any pruning to speak of. This is, of course, fine if what want is a shrub that is there to fill some space and brighten up your side yard in mid summer.

Usual full habit of rose of Sharon
Usual full habit of rose of Sharon

But the very bushiness of this specimen gives it a sort of dowager appearance that I think a few carefully selected limb removals might improve. I would like to give the bush some shape. This is to some extent aesthetic, but also is a practical matter: it is right in front of you went you open the gate to get into the back yard. It has gotten large enough so that you essentially make a trip around the shrub to get into yard. I find this irritating.

After consulting some sites online I found that they advise you to prune a rose of Sharon in the late winter or early spring because it flowers on the current year’s growth, so you want to get to it before it starts growing. But because this is a shaping operation and not an attempt to get more flowers out of it, I think I will have at it sometime in August.

We had one on our property when I was growing up and it was in full sun, which is what all references say they prefer. In fact, they are prone to disease if they are grown in too shaded a location. My childhood rose of Sharon was multi-trunks and its stems grew almost straight up, radiating slightly with height, giving the overall appearance a stiff vase like appearance.

The one in my new yard is not in full sun and has a more compact appearance and the stems are more meandering and gnarled. I confess that I prefer it to the more usual habit. I may get to like this particular specimen, which is one of the white flowered variety with a red band at the proximal end of each petal, making a red ring at the base of the corolla.

This would appear to be the wild type, which originally comes from Korea and China, in spite of the name Linnaeus gave it: Hibiscus syriaca. Many cultivars exist, most of them in shades of red, pink, and purple, but some pure white.

Pancratium maritimum, a candidate for the Biblical "rose of Sharon" (Photo: Zvika-Eigenes Werk)
Pancratium maritimum, a candidate for the Biblical “rose of Sharon” (Photo: Zvika-Eigenes Werk)

Botanically, it is unrelated to the Rose of Sharon of the Bible, which has not been identified with certainty, but was apparently some sort of crocus, tulip or lily (something that came up from a bulb) and grew on the Plain of Sharon along the Mediterranean coast of Israel.

H. syriaca is only called rose of Sharon in the United States. In the United Kingdom it is referred to as the rose mallow. It is all very vague as to why Jesus is identified with the rose of Sharon mentioned in the Song of Solomon. The reference in the song is to a bride and Jesus is often referred to as the bridegroom of the Church.

How H. syriaca, came to connected to this particular rose is unknown. That a hibiscus would be called a rose is less odd. Any attractive flower is often called a rose, as for some reason they are regarded as the perfect flower.


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