Tag Archives: Hibiscus trionum

The slow autumn fade

As the nights cool and day length shortens, there is no denying that autumn is here. Coastal Taranaki is not renowned for autumn colour. It is generally drier climates with sharp seasonal changes of temperature that get the showiest displays. The trees we have that do change won’t be showing much until the end of May and into June. In our climate, the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn are extended in time but at least it means the depths of winter are but brief.

I did a round-up of flowers one year to see what was actually in bloom at this time. We think mainly of our rockery which has a second peak with the showy autumn bulbs (those that are triggered into growth by summer rain) but I see I managed to gather flowers from 40 different plant genera across trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs and that wasn’t including the last gasp of plants well past their peak season. We are blessed to live in a mild climate where plants grow and flower all year round.

Despite all that, it is a time of year that brings out the Squirrel Nutkin in me. Or is that the Laura Ingalls Wilder of The Little House on the Prairie fame? There is something visceral in preparing for cooler months and achieving a state where I know there is enough firewood to keep us warm and food supplies stockpiled against winter famine. Not that I grow the food crops – that is Mark’s domain. And indeed, the supermarket is only 10 minutes’ drive away but that is never going to be as satisfying as seeing the home produce rolling in. April is all about chestnuts, gathering walnuts, drying beans, sorting the apples and pears, gorging on rock and water melons, freezing tomatoes and corn, harvesting grapes and the like.


In recent years, I have turned my attention towards the quiet charm of seed heads. This is the influence of British gardening media. They come from harsher climatic conditions where growth stops in winter and a preponderance of deciduous material means that the winter garden often looks, well, let’s be honest – dead. Their gardeners are urged to leave seed heads in place until spring as a major source of food for birds and wildlife. Dying of starvation is apparently an issue in colder climates.

There is far more discussion about the contribution domestic gardening can make to sound eco-systems and environmental management in British garden media. It is a conversation I have yet to see in this country where we are more likely to assume that any form of gardening makes a worthwhile contribution to nature – which is not necessarily true at all. It is time we questioned some of our practices like pouring on fertilisers, routine spraying, irrigation and lawn management but we can at least let some of our plants go to seed for the birds.

Hibiscus trionum

Not all seed heads are precious, I admit. I try and dead head our roadside agapanthus in the interests of public reputation (though as they are heavy seeds, they don’t spread far from the parent plant). There is a limit to how many crocosmia and tigridias we want so I dead head those. Some rhododendrons will seed themselves to death if not dead headed after flowering. And some simply have no aesthetic merit. Given that our feathered friends have enough food all year round here and many of our native birds are fruit and nectar feeders, I don’t feel obliged to keep everything intact for them in situ.

Rhododendron – one of the sino nuttalliis

When I analyse the seed heads I have photographed over the years, it is the perennials, including the grasses, that are the highlights. A few of the trees and shrubs are exceptional – particularly rhododendrons. But the graceful plumes, the fluffy pompoms, the flat heads that create silhouettes against the sky, the swept-back hairdos mostly come from perennials. The silky seed heads of the clematis are often as pretty – in an understated sort of way – as the flowers themselves. Hibiscus trionum also has exquisite seed pods with a beauty all of their own. I leave the tiered phlomis blooms on the plants until early spring because they keep their form and hold themselves erect.

Clematis tangutica

Sometimes I cut a few seed heads to bring indoors but, like hydrangea heads, they soon start to look somewhat forlorn and dusty to my eyes. Autumn can be melancholy enough without bringing it inside. But in the right place, these attempts by the plants to ensure their survival into the future can also create little cameos of detail which are delightful to look at.

Clematis tangutica at top, left to right: rhododendron, Schima khasiana, Hibiscus trionum and schizophragma

First published in the April issue of New Zealand Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.  


An understated beauty – autumn seed heads

Clematis at top, left to right  rhododendron, Schima khasiana, Hibiscus trionum, Schizophragma hydrangeoides

Clematis at top, left to right rhododendron, Schima khasiana, Hibiscus trionum, Schizophragma hydrangeoides

When I was doing my informal census on autumn flowering plants last week, my eye kept being drawn to equally attractive seed heads. I see I recorded some of these last year when I was still writing for the newspaper , but it has taken me quite a few years to get my eye in for these seasonal pictures of understated beauty.



It is hard to beat the big fluffy heads of the cardoon. I don’t do dried flower and seed head arrangements for indoors, but if you are thinking that way, be warned that all that soft fluff is designed to detach easily and float away in the lightest breeze to disperse. Indoors this head will fall apart very quickly.
???????????????????????????????The aster to the left has a similar fluffy seed head, as does the pachystegia to the right. Along the bottom are the highly decorative clematis seed heads – in this case C. tangutica.

The lovely Hibiscus trionum seed heads

The lovely Hibiscus trionum seed heads

Rhododendron sino nuttallii seed head

Rhododendron sino nuttallii seed head

Phlomis russeliana at top, one of the echinops below

Phlomis russeliana at top, one of the echinops below

Sedum and miscanthus

Sedum and miscanthus

Francoa and Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snowflake'

Francoa and Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snowflake’

I have often read advice to leave all seeding plants standing until early spring as they are a valuable food source for birds. This is cold climate advice that is much less of an issue in our temperate climate and our own situation which is rich in food sources all year round. However, we do get a great deal of pleasure watching the quail feeding from an assortment of seed sources. Pansies appear to be a particular favourite. We try and dead head problem plants that seed down far too freely but I am cultivating a more relaxed attitude to others. It is all about the cycle of nature and the change of season.

Plant Collector: Hibiscus probably trionum

Hibiscus probably trionum

Hibiscus probably trionum

This plant took a little unravelling. It is a self sown seedling with large, short-lived flowers and serrated foliage which is lying almost flat to the ground. Mark thought it was a native but I think he is wrong. There is no shame in that. Most of the country thinks it is native and it is only recently that it has been separated from a very similar species, now called H. richardsonii, which is truly indigenous and indeed critically endangered in its natural habitat of northern east coast areas.

If I am right, this is actually H. trionum which originated in the Levant area of the Eastern Mediterranean, which more or less stretches from Cyprus to Palestine. It seems that the very dark eye to the flower is what makes it H. trionum rather than H. richardsonii. Well, that and chromosome counts. There are countless references on the internet to H. trionum being native in New Zealand as well as being widespread internationally. It has certainly naturalised here and by the time common usage catches up with the differences, it is likely that what we will have are hybrids between the two. It will fall to the botanists to try and keep a pure strain of the native H. richardsonii.

Both forms of hibiscus are usually short-lived perennials, often behaving as annuals, especially in frosty areas. They are in the mallow family (or malvaceae) and are showy, even if the individual flowers don’t last long. The common name is the unromantic bladder plant, though that is more correctly applied just to H. trionum. We do have one other native hibiscus and that is H. diversifolius.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.