It started like this: She leaned over with her hand cupped around her mouth, and with her soft low voice against my ear, she whispered: "Wear yore darkest clothes, chile, an' meet me right here jus' 'fore dark. We're gonna git some rose maller seeds." "Aunt Bett, marshmalla seeds? Marshmallas don't . . . " That hand clamped itself over my mouth before I could say another word or even take a breath. Her next whisper was a little louder: "Hush yore mouth, chile, ya cain't grab seeds if ya cain't keep quiet!" The night got worse before it got better.
Hibiscus coccineus is one of those glorious plants that grows and blooms year after year, sporting the biggest blooms and the most dainty foliage you ever saw, with hardly any help from a gardener. It's simply one of the most beautiful natives in my part of this country. We called it Scarlet Rose Mallow.
It was Aunt Bett who taught me to appreciate the plant when I was about 8, maybe 9, even if I thought she was leading me straight into a life of crime at the time. Let me tell you a little about the plant before we jump into one of Aunt Bett's seed-grabbing shenanigans.
Scarlet Rose Mallow is native to the southeastern part of the United States, appearing sparsely in the area of the southern Appalachians but more heavily in Georgia, Alabama and Florida. It grows along streams and in marshy areas and needs lots of sunshine and water to bloom. That's one reason it was such a rare find in my mountains because the numerous mountain streams weren't always located in sunshine. Most of them were covered in shade. Until the night of our evening seed raid, I don't think I had ever seen the plant blooming.
It's a perennial that grows pretty well in Zones 5 and 6 and very well in Zones 7 - 9. In the cooler zones it needs heavy mulching to make it safely through a harsh winter. It's happy in most garden soils and will grow in part shade, but it needs more sun to produce heavy blooms. It really isn't a bush, but the roots produce single stalks that are anywhere from 3 to 7 feet tall and it blooms here in zone 7 from July to September. Its five-petaled, bright scarlet flowers are 6 to 9 inches in diameter, and even though the blooms last for only a day, there are numerous buds just waiting to take their places. Like most of the hibiscuses, they have a long showy stamen column, usually red as well. The interesting part about the dark green lacy foliage is that the palmate leaves are 5 to 6 inches wide, like the spread of fingers on a hand, but also very much like the foliage of hemp/marijuana. It's easy to confuse the two. Hummingbirds love those scarlet flowers, and so do butterflies.
It dies back in late fall and the stalks can be cut back then, but I usually leave a couple of feet of those tall stalks so I'll know where to expect new growth in the spring. It's also easier then to distribute mulch evenly with the stalks visible. The seeds are formed inside pods, which are green at first and then darken to nearly black when the seeds are ripe. The pods pop open and seeds fall to the ground or you can collect the pods just as they darken and save the seeds. New growth will come from those seeds that fall, without even being covered with soil.
Though they need to grow near water to bloom well, they seem to survive droughts pretty well, too. It's best if they are given extra water during dry times, the same as with most other plants. Also, the same as with other plants, they might look a little different in different climates, but you can always tell by the lacy palmate foliage whether it is Hibiscus coccineus
. You can also find different varieties in some locations. Texas Star is one of them. Texas Star can be white instead of red. Just look at the leaves and then you'll know for sure.
Now let's go seed-grabbing with Aunt Bett. It really isn't as bad as it sounds. Maybe.
I met her at the specified time and place, wearing dark clothes and dark shoes. I never gave a thought to my hair. She grabbed something from the pocket of her dark gray apron and started wrapping it around my head.
"That white hair of yores is wavin' 'roun' yore head, chile, jus' like a beacon in the night. Here, it's needin' to be covered."
"Aunt Bett you've wound it so tight I can't hear a word you say. Are we gettin' ready to do somethin' bad, 'cause if we are, I won't!" The hand clamped over my mouth; but the kerchief remained in its tight knot around my head.
'Seed grabbin' ain't bad, ya take a few an' ya leave a few more, I jus' don't want Cory to know where I git my fever cure. There's things some people don't need to know. Keep yore mouth shut an' things'll be jus' fine," she whispered, in a hush and a rush to get the words out.
As it turned out, the Scarlet Rose Mallow wasn't on anybody's land, but it was on the bank of the little creek that ran down past Aunt Corybelle's house and the only way to reach it was to walk along the edge of her nicely trimmed yard. I already knew Aunt Cory sat in the swing on her front porch nearly every night, but I also knew how determined Aunt Bett could get when she was after plants that she used for cures. Now, Aunt Cory wasn't a mean woman at all. She just didn't take kindly to snoopers who crept along the edge of her yard when it was nearly dark. We started creeping along her side of the creek and I could barely see her sitting there swinging. I stopped in my tracks.
"Aunt Bett, I think she's got a shotgun. I ain't goin' another step, no, I'm too little to git kilt jus' for seeds!"
Not another word did she say, but there came that hand against my mouth again and the other one grabbed the back of my kerchief-wrapped head. When she had calmed down a bit and when I stopped struggling to get away from her hands, she finally whispered that she'd grab the seeds and leaves, and all I had to do was watch to see that Aunt Cory didn't turn her head toward us. And if she did, we were going to drop to the ground as fast as we could. "Don't ya say nary a word," she said, "not nary a one! If anybody hears ya, them seeds won't grow!"
I stood still as a fence post, looking toward Aunt Cory with my eyes closed. I didn't want to see that shotgun pointed at me. The night was quiet and still. Not even the rustle of a leaf could be heard, but I was shaking so hard, it felt like the whole world could hear my heart pounding. Behind me I could barely hear Aunt Bett quietly yanking seed pods and pulling leaves off the Rose Mallow.
Suddenly, right there in the quiet dark night, a voice said: "You gatherin' them malla seeds again, Bett? Reckon you'll need some leaves, too, for them fever teas. Ya might as well take enough seeds to plant beside your own creek so ya don't hafta borry none of mine! Here, I brought you a paper sack for them leaves."
My eyes flew open to see Aunt Cory standing there right in front of me, leaning on her cane, the one I thought was a shotgun. She wore a grin wider than her little round face, so wide it squinted her eyes almost shut. I let out the breath I was holding in a loud whoosh. Then I jerked that bandana kerchief off my head. "It's me, too, Aunt Cory!"
"I know it's you, too, chile, you can't hide that hair of yours 'neath no bandana! It's gonna glow in the dark just like a beacon no matter what ya do! Why, I seen ya comin' from a mile away." And there again was that sweet smile of hers, spreading across her face. Aunt Bett just kept right on grabbin' seeds; I think she was smilin' too.
Sometimes Aunt Bett had strange ways of teaching me about things, like seed grabbing and Scarlet Rose Mallow. I also think she and Aunt Corybelle might have planned the whole event, just so I'd remember. I guess good teaching can come from all directions, even when you least expect it. And good memories can last a lifetime.