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A Hard-won Prize

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

 I’m not the first to observe that the best thing about plants is making more of them. I may have missed my calling. I could so easily have been a greenhouse rat, a professional plant maven. A tastemaker, a horticultural influencer. I can pretend, anyway. I grow a lot of things, and I pass them on to family and friends like a joyful gnome tossing gold coins from a treasure chest. “Here. You’ve GOT to have this plant. This is the greatest plant. It doesn’t look like much now, but come the end of July, it’s going to send out some hot pink flowers that will drive you mad with joy.”

Speaking of mad with joy...look at this beauty! 

 I have for years been enamored of a hibiscus named Creole Lady, which I ordered from Logee’s Greenhouse easily a decade ago. I’ve seen lots of nice hibiscus, and I love my glorious yellow and red "The Path," but this one, one of the Cajun hybrids, carries special voodoo magic. 

Early in the morning, her sails start to unfurl.  

Then, BAM!

In come the peachy sunset's hard to say what my favorite stage is, but this one, ohh.

 Just before closing, it goes all pale yellow and silver. Amazing. 

My decade-plus love affair with this plant has deepend into a mature "I don't want to live without you" love.

 I like its growth habit, its leaves (dark green and shiny) and its enormous flowers, six inches across, with that bewitching color-changing habit. This is the same flower, at the beginning and the end of a summer day. The progression happens faster when it's hot. 

 By the time the yellow and silver flower falls, a new bud is opening with those heady sunrise tones, and you get to do the whole swoony thing all over again. It’s a drama queen and I love it with all my heart.


I’ve taken many cuttings of Creole Lady over the years, and every single one of them has turned black and died. My impetus to propagate this plant is several-pronged. First, it’s the best hibiscus I’ve ever seen. Second, it’s really hard to find—there is one grower in Florida currently offering it, but he’s usually back-ordered for six months or more. Third, I can’t keep an individual hibiscus for more than five or six years, because they get too big. Like, scraping the greenhouse ceiling big. Tree big. Redwood big. 

 Fourth, my greenhouse is prone to midwinter freezes, when the gas cuts off and everything dies. I have been burned so many times that I’ve learned to keep a small Creole Lady on hand as insurance, one that I can keep in the house during cold snaps, just in case the greenhouse freezes one single-digit night (which is always when it happens). To go from a glorious tree full of coral and violet blossoms to a sad rack of limp rags is Very Hard on the Heart. But it has happened to her, and to me, several times. Such is the gas supply from our well: erratic and faulty.

 This is why I need an understudy coming along all the time. I’m completely neurotic about it, moreso with time, because Creole Lady is getting harder and harder to obtain. When Logee’s stopped carrying it, I ordered one from Winn’s Exotic Hibiscus one January, and finally received a small, spindly plant at the end of June. I had prepaid, but had to remind him that I still wanted it, and then it finally shipped. With endless love and attention, that spindly plant—grafted onto a stronger rootstock, I might add, because it’s so hard to root—is a magnificent three-year-old. And I’m already foreseeing the time when it gets too big to handle, and I will have to replace it with one whose pot I can lift.


You see, there has been a rolling succession of Creole Ladies in my life. What happens with hibiscus in my greenhouse, if they don't die by freezing, is that they all eventually outgrow their welcome. Last January, I finally gave up on the enormous five-year-old Lady who had been frozen down to bare sticks in a gas outage,

 slowly came back into full glory, got huge, 

then became infested last winter with small green aphids that I absolutely could not get rid of. I was spraying that plant twice a day and still it was a living green mat of aphids, infesting everything else in my tiny greenhouse. It was no longer an asset. Attached as I was, I had to get rid of it. But before I dragged her enormous pot out into the snow and kissed her goodbye, I took three small cuttings. It was January 21, 2021.

 Hastening to add that I had an understudy from Winn! or I'd never have euthanized the giant plant.

I washed the cuttings, dipped them in rooting hormone, and put them in clean wet vermiculite in a clean plastic cup. I made a humidity tent with a second clear plastic cup. I provided gentle heat from below with a five watt aquarium heater meant for bettas. The cuttings sat there for weeks, bathed in full-spectrum light from a grow lamp, doing absolutely nothing. Two turned black and died. One stayed green. But it was April 30—three full months—before a tiny white root protruded from its base. You can see the other cutting is black and rotty and dying. That's par for the course. 

 By June—five months later—the lone living one had five roots perhaps a half-inch long. I tried a couple of times to remove the top cup, to get it used to ambient humidity, and each time the leaves wilted like a damp Kleenex, giving me clear indication that it intended to die, and die soon. Back on with the humidity cup. The cutting sulked. The summer got hot and I removed the bottom heater. Still the cutting sat, doing nothing. One day in early July I was alarmed to see two of its leaves turning yellow. They fell off. The stem started turning black. Oh no!! I was desperate. Clearly what I was doing wasn’t working. Time to change things up. 


I removed all but one leaf, reasoning that it would lose less water through one leaf than four. I repotted it and its puny roots in real potting soil, and then I put it outside in light shade on my chipmunk-proof propagation table. It would no longer have a humidity chamber. This plant was on its own. It was now or never. And that cutting started putting out green shoots and then it made new leaves. By golly it was alive!! It was growing! I had my tiny understudy!  It had been agonizingly slow, but somehow I’d blundered through and done it.  (Three year old Creole Lady in back).


Now all I want to do is try again. That was fun. And I am a true masochist. 

But with good reason. LOOK AT THIS PLANT.


Doesn't seem much different than nurturing ailing creatures back to health, except slower. And we all know you rock at that!

Julie, you ARE a joyful gnome tossing gold coins (in my case Jewel Orchids) from Ohio up here to Wisconsin! And my joy is the pot full of orchids from which I’ve started 12 new plants to gift to family and friends.

Thank you!
And congratulations on the new understudy you have created. I look forward to seeing many more gorgeous photos of the Path. Those blossom photos from your green house help make winter more bearable.

I love this! So glad you are having success and sharing your techniques.

I had no idea hibiscus plants would change colors like this. No wonder you want to create more as insurance. Wow!! So glad one finally took off for you.

Just spectacular! I can see why you are so smitten. Now, I want one!


I got my own spindly Creole Lady from Winn a few months ago. I’ve been guarding her from the heat, sun, flood and drought. We are leaving on a trip next week so I took her and her 12 hibiscus to a plant sitter. I felt like I was taking my children to summer camp. I may or may not have told them to be good little plants for the babysitter and kissed them goodbye.

After sitting nearly forgotten in my garden room, my Pink Nighty corms were retrieved and replanted. A little late I guess, but they have sprouted and are promising to grow for me!
I'm surprised any survived the freezing temps last winter when nearly everything in my garden room perished. I'm so glad you've been able to keep Creole Lady going for so long!

No wonder this magnificent plant has such a hard time existing here, even with your devotion. It's clearly not of this world!!!

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