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Scarlet Hibiscus
scarlett hibiscus
Scarlet mallow, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center, Boynton Beach., Palm Beach County, in May 2017.
scarlet hibiscus flower

This is the crown jewel of South Florida's wetlands, and a extraordinarily rare one. Scarlet hibiscus, Hibiscus coccineus to scientists. The flowers are absolutely huge and as red hot as an August afternoon.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center calls it "one of our loveliest native flowers." That's understating it in our eyes. The flower can span six inches or more and the plant can be eight feet tall, allowing it to stand like a beacon in a sea of green.

There are other beautiful wetland flowers. Blue flag comes to mind. Golden canna is another. But their charms are much more subtle by comparison with the brash scarlet hibiscus.

Scarlet hibiscus is a Florida native, but its range within the state is a bit scattered through the Peninsula and the Panhandle. Within South Florida, specimens have been found and officially recorded in Collier and Broward counties, and the Broward recording seems likely a mistake.

The Institute for Regional Conservation also puts it within the boundaries of Jonathan Dickenson State Park in Martin County. But the IRC says it is aware of only one population of scarlet hibiscus in the region, and that's within Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The IRC classifies scarlet hibiscus as critically imperiled within South Florida. The plants on this page were photographed at Green Cay Nature Center in Boynton Beach, but we're guessing that they were planted there.

scarlet hibiscus

Scarlet hibiscus grows throughout the Southeast, as far north as Virginia and as far west as Arkansas and Louisiana. We get the general impression that nowhere within its range is it actually abundant, just not as rare is it here.

Scarlet hibiscus is a shrub that can grow as much as eight feet tall and is multistemmed. It blooms summer to fall — late May to the end of September by our observations. Each flower lasts only a day, but the plants are constantly blooming.

It is a perennial but it drops its leaves and dies back each winter, resprouting come spring. As plants age, they produce additional stems each year. Both the leaves and stems have a red tinge to them. The leaves are large, about five or six inches across, have three, five or seven finger-like lobes that are finely serrated along the edges and come to a point. The lobes are palmated, meaning there's no tissue between them, unlike say the lobes on a maple leaf. The effect is that plant (very) vaguely looks like marijuana.

The brilliant blooms do attract their share of nectar lovers, particularly butterflies and red-loving hummingbirds. Unfortunately here in South Florida, there are no hummingbirds to attract — the only species to regularly visit the region — ruby-throated hummingbirds — do so in winter and spring when scarlet hibiscus isn't in flower. Gray hairstreak and painted lady butterflies are here year round, and use scarlet hibiscus as both a host plant and nectar source.

Photographs by David Sedore

Parts of scarlet hibiscus is edible — the flowers are used in salads and teas, and are said to to have a tart taste. They're also rich in antioxidants. The leaves are edible in a salad or as greens. The tea supposedly has a calming effect.

Scarlet hibiscus is regularly used in landscaping, but obviously it does have its limitation. It is a wetland plant after all and while it can withstand some drought, its feet really need to be wet beyond what the typical yard can offer. There are also cultivars of scarlet hibiscus available on the market, including one called Lord Baltimore, which offers deep red flowers, and Alba, which has all while flowers.

Scarlet hibiscus is also known as the scarlet rose mallow, crimson rosemallow, wild red mallow, Texas star hibiscus, swamp angel, scarlet hardy mallow and marsh hibiscus. Scarlet hibiscus is a member of Malvaceae, which includes all hibiscus species and many others, including cotton.

  scarlet hibiscus
Links for Scarlet Hibiscus
Institute for Regional Conservation Natives for Your Neighborhood Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants USDA PLANTS Database Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.