Nothing but Mallows

hollyhock (Alcea rosea)If I had to create a flower garden of plants belonging to a single family, I probably would choose Malvaceae, comprising the mallows and hibiscuses. Many of these plants have incredible flower displays that last for months.
For brilliant color, I could choose from dozens of showy Hibiscus Rosa- sinensis (Chinese or tropical hibiscus) varieties, bearing red, yellow, orange or pink flowers. This is the best-known hibiscus species and grows to a height of 15 feet, although dwarf types also are available. It needs protection where winter temperatures dip below 30 degrees Fahrenheit and – in our valleys – should be planted under the protecting edge of a roof or beneath the overhanging branches of an evergreen tree.
A deciduous shrub of equal stature is Hibiscus syriacus, the rose of Sharon. It is distinguished by its massive bloom, during summer or fall, when most other plants have stopped flowering. Depending on the variety, flowers are violet, magenta, pink or white, often accented with red at the petal bases.
Hibiscus moschuetos is a less common but hardly less spectacular species, with flowers reaching a diameter of 12 inches. It is described as herbaceous, since it dies back in the winter. Each spring, its branches grow to a height of 6 to 8 feet.
The blue hibiscus, Alyogyne Huegelii, has become one of our garden staples in recent years. It blooms on and off throughout the year, has shimmering lilic to purple petals and dark green, hairy, intricately lobed leaves.
Another popular plant of fairly recent introduction is Anisodontea hypomandarum, the African or dwarf pink hibiscus. This 5- to 7-foot shrub is covered with rose-pink flowers during spring and summer but can be caught blooming at any time. Its leaves are miniatures of those found on the blue hibiscus.
Tree mallows are notable for their rapid growth – to 10 feet – and long flowering period. Two species commonly are encountered: Lavatera bicolor, a French import whose flowers are purple at the center and fade outward to white, and Lavatera assurgentiflora, a native of Catalina Island that, in one year, may grow from a seed into a 5-foot plant bearing pink-magenta flowers. Both species bloom from spring until fall.
Two other California native mallows deserve mention. One is Sphaeralcea ambigua, which has small gray leaves and apricot flowers; the other is Malacothamnus Davidsonii, a 9-foot species with mauve flowers whose habitat is the San Fernando Valley.
Until now, all the species discussed require well-drained soil to grow well. There are also certain plants in the mallow family, however, that perform admirably even under adverse soil conditions. After all, the marsh mallow – whose roots produce a tasty white confection of the same name – grows near the sea in water-logged soil. The hollyhock (Alcea rosea), which I think of as “the vacant lot plant,” grows through asphalt cracks and next to chainlink fences around abandoned gas stations and in unlandscaped, overgrown backyards. The hollyhock is a biennial, flowering in its second year and then dying. It grows to a height of 6 feet with 6-inch-diameter flowers in virtually every color of the rainbow. It is a classic for the English garden and reseeds (self-sows) prolifically. Unfortunately, it is a magnet to pathogenic fungi, viruses and insect pests.
Lagunaria patersonii is an evergreen tree that reaches a height of 40 feet and is graced with small pink flowers. It, too, can grow well in less than perfect soil.
Abutilon hybridum, the Chinese lantern or flowering maple, is the one shade-loving plant in the pantheon of mallows. The white and yellow varieties flower almost year round, but the pink and red varieties also are worth planting. Abutilon can be trained into a standard or patio tree; there is also a dwarf type that is grown to best advantage in hanging baskets.

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