Something tropical – South Africa’s Hibiscuses

Written by Life Green Group & Catherine Browne

Pineapples; frangipanis; heart-leafed philodendrons; coconut trees; have become synonymous with the turquoise waters, sandy white beaches and hoola girls of the tropics but there is one coastal flower that stands out in particular: the hibiscus. In fact this tropical blossom is the national flower of two humid nations, Haiti and Hawaii.

Hibiscuses form part of the Malcreava family which they share with some of the most monoculture crops like cotton and cocoa and there are many varieties that occur worldwide. It also shares a family with the gigantic baobab.

There are 59 species of hibiscus in southern Africa, three of which occur in South Africa. They are a lot daintier and wilder than the commercial hybridised version we have come so accustomed to.

Possibly one of the most exquisite flowers in the world, beside the English rose and South Africa’s Gerbera daisy, the Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is a popular garden plant worldwide. This is the hibiscus we all know and the image that pops to mind I bet, and some refer to as the ‘ballerina flower’. But if you are going to plant a hibiscus why not grow an indigenous one? Life Green Group and the BotSoc share with you about indigenous varieties.

1) Hibiscus tiliaceusWild cotton tree

Hibiscus tiliaceus- Monique Mcquillan (3)
©Monique Mcquillan
Hibiscus tiliaceus - Monique McQuillan(4)
©Monique Mcquillan

The hibiscus tiliaceus’ claim to fame is that it is the only hibiscus in the world to be bestowed with the title  of a tree and is frequently used as a street tree in Durban.

Although its flowers are smaller than its Polynesian cousins they still look distinctly hibiscus-like. The flowers of the wild cotton are a pale yellow that turn deep purple to maroon black at the centre, over time the yellow will change to a coral-pink orange. The blossoms are much smaller in contrast to its leaves.

The wild cotton tree loves a tropical humid environment in full sun. True to the tropical nature of hibiscuses this shrub flirts with the South African coastline all the way from the Eastern Cape through Zululand and into Mozambique – growing by estuaries and lagoons – where it gets its other common name, lagoon hibiscus. Its branches are used in African culture to build fishing baskets along the coast.

2)Hibiscus pedunculatusForest pink hibiscus

©Life Green Group
H. pendunculatus- SANBI Lowveld NBG
©SANBI Lowveld National Botanical Garden

The forest pink hibiscus is the dainty ballerina of the hibiscus family. It has slender shrubby branches and a delicate lavender-pink flower. Each flower only lasts a day but it flowers 365 days of the year.

Its seed are nestled in a candyfloss-like substance, similar to cotton. Just when you think the Hibiscus pedunculatus couldn’t get more girly, butterflies such as commodores and skippers adore it, not to mention sun-birds too.

The shrub has a very woody base so it’s best to plant it at the back or in the middle of a bed and let the pink flower pirouette out from below.

3)Hibiscus calyphyllusSun Hibiscus

H. calyphyllus- SANBI – Lowveld National Botanical Garden
© SANBI Lowveld National Botanical Garden

Otherwise called the lemon-yellow rosemallow, this hibiscus has large lemon-drop yellow flowers with an ebony centre, this bush is perfect for a small garden.

This gem prefers warmer cooler areas found in the bush along rivers and can handle a little frost. Great as a messy divider or landscapers suggest you make it the centre of attention in a little garden as it is an eye-catching plant.

Hibiscus tea and jam might be popular in the Caribbean but the sun hibiscus’ lovely flowers have been known to be eaten in times of famine in the Okavango Delta.

Our country is so richly biodiverse. We at BotSoc encourage you to grow indigenous plants, share knowledge about them and encourage others to enjoy and conserve our indigenous flora and biodiversity.

We hope you enjoyed this post and learnt something from it, we have such great indigenous gems out there. If you like what you read, please follow our blog and share it with friends/ family/ colleagues….anyone really….the more the merrier. Until next time…

Information sources:

Life Green Group




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The Botanical Society of South Africa (BotSoc) are an NGO conserving and educating about biodiversity for over 100 years.

One thought on “Something tropical – South Africa’s Hibiscuses”

  1. Malcreava family?

    Glad I don’t need to rescue my little pink Hibiscus, which is blooming from under a mass of Pelargonium.

    tiliaceus has wonderful heart-shaped leaves. In Porterville they were always in a spectrum of yellow, bronze, red as well as green.


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