The Q&A Archives: Tree Mallow Or Chinese Hibiscus?

Question: We just moved into a house with several shrubs in the back yard. There are several bushes, anywhere from 4' to 7' tall, with lobed, almost triangular shaped leaves, pale green, not glossy, and lots of five petaled pinky-purple flowers with small white centers and burgundy stamens. There is no fragrance. I think this may be either tree mallow or Chinese hibiscus (it looks like the pix I've seen of Rose of Sharon, but the blooms are smaller and a different color). Any way to tell which this might be? Also, some of these plants are very dense and about waist high; others are taller with mature runners that have fallen over but not broken. I have begun to straighten the tall ones up the fence using brass eye screws and plant ties, to espalier them. Is this plant ok to do this with (it seems to naturally fan out its branches), or will this hurt its growth?

Answer: The fact that the leaves are not glossy rules out Chinese (tropical) hibiscus, so I'd guess your shrubs are Hibiscus syriacus, or Shrub Althaea. There are many named varieties; some are tall and some are short, and some begin with compact growing habits but spread open with age. These plants bloom on new wood, so attaching the stems to a fence might not provide a cascade of color. Instead, prune the plants back so the growth remains upright. In fact, you can prune these plants annually to keep them compact, cutting back the previous year's growth to only two buds. The flower colors and sizes vary but most have a contrasting eye and a red stamen. An absolute identification can be made by taking the flowers to a local horticulturist (at your Extension Service) or knowledgeable nursery person.

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