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Roses of Sharon add color when most plants aren't blooming

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 9:08 p.m. MDT

The five-petaled flowers of a Rose of Sharon resemble hollyhock blossoms and come in a wide range of colors. (Larry Sagers) The five-petaled flowers of a Rose of Sharon resemble hollyhock blossoms and come in a wide range of colors. (Larry Sagers)

Trace your genealogy back and you might find a horse thief, an escaped convict or some other skeletons hiding away.

Like human families, plant families have the good and the bad, and over the next couple of weeks we will check out the mallow family relatives.

Mallow weed, sometimes known in the local vernacular as cheese-it or cheese-weeds, is a common lawn and garden weed in Utah.

It has a round leaf and a small cup-shaped flower that resembles a tiny hollyhock.

Its large taproot makes it a rather persistent weed that is difficult to control using herbicides. In other areas of the country, many other much more aggressive and damaging weeds are relatives.

The mallow family has more than 200 genera and 2,300 species. Many grow in tropical and semitropical environments throughout the world. It boasts some attractive deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs, plus numerous annuals and perennials.

It also includes some important agricultural crops. It is hard to imagine life without one important mallow family member, the cacao bean, the source of chocolate.

It also includes cotton, okra, jute and others.

Looking at the ornamental cousins, we find several beauties. The most recognizable are probably the more than 300 species of hardy and tropical hibiscus, but it also includes Althea (Rose of Sharon), hollyhock, prairie mallow and lavatera.

The Althea — or Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) — is a popular blooming shrub that grows well along the Wasatch Front in USDA zones 5-8.

It adds nice summer color when most other woody plants are not blooming. It is a particularly useful shrub this year because it is very heat tolerant.

This plant comes from China and India and originally its name came from the Song of Solomon 2:1. It was assumed the plant originally was native to the Sharon Plain on the Mediterranean Sea coast.

The Swedish botanist Linnaeus added to the confusion with the species name of syriacus, which means from Syria. Modern Biblical scholars think the plant mentioned in the Biblical verse refers to one of several other plants.

This plant's versatility is a plus because, depending on how you choose to do the pruning, it can be a low-growing shrub or it can be pruned into a small tree. If not pruned, most cultivars grow 8 to 12 feet tall by 4 to 6 feet wide in an upright, vase-shaped form.

The five-petaled, edible flowers resemble hollyhock blossoms.

Their wide range of colors include white, pink, red, lavender, purple, mauve, violet or blue and even bicolors, with a different colored throat, depending upon the cultivar.

They attract bees and occasionally hummingbirds.

When this plant was first imported to England, it was considered cold tender and was often grown inside the home. When it was discovered to survive the winters, its popularity increased.

Several Rose of Sharon cultivars that were featured by William Robison in "The English Flower Garden" that he published in 1883 are still available today. The drawback to these older types is that they are prolific seed producers and can become weedy in some parts of the country.

One major improvement is the introduction of triploid cultivars developed at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. These plants bloom more profusely because the plant is sterile and does not expend energy setting seeds. These were named for goddesses.

"Diana" has white flowers; "Helene" has white flowers with a red center; "Aphrodite" has dark pink flowers with a red center; and "Minerva" has lavender-pink flowers with a red center. "Lady Stanley," "Ardens," "Lucy" and "Blushing Bride" are also popular.

New introductions from Proven Winners include Lavender Chiffon, "Notwoodone"; White Chiffon, "Notwoodtwo"; Blue Satin, "Marina"; Blush Satin, "Mathilde"; and Violet Satin, "Floru."

The plants prefer full sun to partial shade exposure and moist, well-drained soils with abundant organic matter. However they adapt well to most soils as long as the pH is not too high. Avoid poorly drained soils and avoid overwatering, as the plants will likely develop iron chlorosis.

The blossoms are formed on the twigs that grow in the summer, so prune the plant in late winter, not in the summer. Otherwise you will cut off the flowers buds that flower that season. Prune to keep the plant at the right size. Heavy pruning before leaves appear gives fewer but larger flowers. Minimal or no pruning gives more but smaller flowers.

One drawback is that with some cultivars, the flowers close after one day. These often take several days before they drop from the plant or they sometimes develop brown seedpods, making the plants less attractive.

Check out these mallow relatives at your local nursery. They just might be a great addition to your favorite plants.

Garden tips and events

This week's Garden Talks in the Park will focus on the principles of designing your own Garden of Eden. The talk will take place Aug. 22, 7:30 p.m. at Brigham Young Historic Park on the southeast corner of State Street and North Temple. No tickets are required and all ages are welcome.

Red Butte Garden is offering a class on native seed collecting on Aug. 25, from 9 a.m. to noon. Participants will visit the natural area of the garden to collect native seeds. They'll also learn when to harvest, how to handle seeds after collection, and where and how to plant them for best germination results. Plant lists and seed collection envelopes provided. Bring hand pruners. Registration is required. The course is limited to 30 participants. Cost is $16 for members; $20 for nonmembers. To register call 801-581-8454.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.

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