Confederate Rose, Not a Rose at All

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Picture a tree full of pink peony blossoms in October after a summer showing of large lobed green leaves (maple leaves on steroids!) and you will see why this old pass along plant, Confederate rose Hibiscus mutabilis, has been grown for hundreds of years in so many Southern gardens.

Confederate rose is not a rose. Neither is it native to North America. It may be called cotton rose or cotton mallow but it is classified in the hibiscus family. It probably arrived in England from its native China in the 1600’s and was brought to the Southern colonies soon after.

Confederate rose typically is a deciduous multi-branch shrub that grows 8 – 10 feet tall. In areas with no frost, it can become a tree. It often is placed at the back of a garden, with day lilies or lantana planted in front of it. The fall blooms are unique in that they open pale pink or white, darken to bright pink and then to red during the one day that each blossom lives. Buds develop in a cluster reminiscent of cotton bolls and open on progressive days.

The name Confederate rose has a romantic origin. Grown in the gardens of the South, bouquets of the roses were given to returning Confederate soldiers. According to legend, a soldier fell near a white rose bush. As he lay bleeding the flowers turned pink, then red, and then dropped off when the soldier died.

Confederate rose is a low-maintenance shrub. It grows in hardiness zones 7 – 11 and will be more tree-like in the warmer zones. Pruning, feeding and mulching are somewhat optional. The shrub grows best in rich moist soil in full sun, but will tolerate draught, poor drainage and light shade. It may be fertilized sparingly with 10-10-10 twice a month during the summer – or not. Pests may include aphids, white flies and spider mites. These can be eliminated with insecticidal soap, then rinsing the foliage, especially the underside of leaves, weekly with a garden hose can keep the shrub insect-free.

Depending on winter temperatures, Confederate rose may die back to the ground and come back slowly in the spring. A light mulch will prevent the roots from freezing. The shrub may be pruned minimally in November or December after blooming to remove weak growth. In the spring, old stems should be cut back and dead stems should be cut away to make room for new growth from the base.

Confederate rose is easy to propagate. It may be grown from seeds produced in flower pods, but it is most often grown from cuttings. Before frost, take a 12-inch cutting from the end of a branch and place it in 6 inches of water. Leave it over the winter in a cool but not freezing area such as a garage. In the spring, when new roots are obvious plant it in a pot so this heirloom plant is ready to pass along to a friend.

Written by Sharon Miller, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer – Carteret County