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The Legend of the Confederate Rose

The Confederate Rose (Hibiscus mutabilis) is originally from China and was imported to England in the 1600s. Soon thereafter, a cutting “crossed the pond” and became popular in the southern United States for its beauty and ease of cultivation.

Originally called Cotton Rose, it is said that the flower was brilliant white. All this changed though during the Civil War. Legend has it that a fatally wounded Confederate soldier fell beside a Cotton Rose plant. Sadly, it took him two day to die, and as he bled the flowers of the Cotton Rose turned from white to red. When he died the flowers also died. From that time on the flowers of the Cotton Rose open white and turn from pink to magenta over the course of two days before dying (all three colors of flowers are often blooming at the same time). The Cotton Rose was renamed the Confederate Rose.

This herbaceous perennial is a statuesque plant that dies to the ground in late fall, but during the growing season can attain heights of 6’ tall and 4’ wide. When choosing a site to grow it, give it plenty of room to spread out and become a focal point or back of the border plant.

The plant form is shrubby, with dense branching and a rounded canopy. Large, palmate, bright green, hairy leaves are somewhat heart-shaped, with serrated edges and prominent veins.

Mid-summer through fall, plump buds open to large (4-6” wide), showy flowers. Varieties with single flowers resemble common hibiscus flowers, while those with ruffled, double flowers resemble roses. As an added bonus hummingbirds and butterflies visit to sip its flower nectar. After flowering, a round, fuzzy capsule forms that resembles a cotton boll. When dry, each capsule releases small, brown, slightly fuzzy seeds.

Site Confederate Rose in a part sun location (an eastern exposure is ideal). This plant would prefer the acid soils of the southeast, but tolerates our alkaline, clay soil with the addition of compost at planting time. Maintain average soil moisture, although supplemental water may be necessary during the torrid days of summer. Be careful not to over-fertilize (monthly is plenty) and use a balanced fertilizer containing a slow release source of nitrogen. Before the first freeze, shovel a generous layer of mulch over the root zone.

Like all plants in the Hibiscus family, Confederate Rose may be susceptible to aphids, whiteflies and spider mites. Check the undersides of leaves, where these little pests like to hang out. Aphids can be controlled with a strong blast of water, and whiteflies with an insecticidal soap such as Safer (always follow label directions). Spider mites may appear in extreme heat if the plant becomes water stressed and can be controlled with a strong blast of water.

I received my Confederate Rose from a friend in Parker, who received her cutting from a friend in Murphy, whose Southern relatives shared it with her. Every year before the first freeze my friend takes 12” cuttings (cut the bottom on an angle so you know which end is up) and places the cuttings in a large jar of water. They live on the windowsill all winter long until water roots are formed. She then pots them into soil, allows them to grow strong roots and when the soil has warmed gives them to friends as pass-along plants to enjoy in their gardens. I was thrilled to be a recipient of one of these cuttings last year and enjoyed it in my garden (although I must confess that I lost it to neglect). Being a hopeful gardener, I’m trying again this year.

I’m looking forward to paying it forward by taking cuttings and sharing them with gardening friends next year.

PS: If you don’t have a friend who grows Confederate Rose, I have seen it available by mail order.

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