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Flora Fact: Heart to Heart

Celebrate Valentine’s Day with scarlet petals and heart-shaped leaves.

By Karen Clary

It’s said that first impressions are lasting impressions, and that is certainly true of the first time I ever laid eyes on heartleaf hibiscus.

I was doing field research in the Chihuahuan Desert near Saltillo, Mexico, collecting yucca plants and keeping an eye out for snakes, tarantulas and biting spiders (mostly imagined) when I spied a scarlet patch of color. Thinking it was a wayward piece of windblown litter, I bent down to pick it up, only to discover it was a shrub with flower petals of a red so deep they seemed to glow and with heart-shaped leaves as soft as velvet. What a treat to find something so beautiful when least expecting it!

Heartleaf hibiscus

 

Heartleaf hibiscus

The Spanish name, tulipan del monte (mountain tulip), evokes images of a cooler, more temperate growing climate, but don’t be fooled — this plant is a hardy soul.

Native to Mexico and Texas, it reaches the northern limits of its natural distribution in South Texas.

Heartleaf hibiscus is a member of the mallow family, and, like most mallows, the five showy petals surround a curious-looking pistil encased in a sheath of fused stamens. Sitting atop the pistil are five fuzzy stigma balls, which catch pollen.

Heartleaf hibiscus petals get their color from a red flower pigment called cyanidin. Studies show heartleaf hibiscus has some of the highest concentrations of cyanidin among the mallows.

Tiny star-shaped clusters of soft hairs (stellate hairs) cover the leaf surface, which make it soft to the touch. Heartleaf hibiscus provides a source of nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies.

This leafy-stemmed perennial grows 1 to 3 feet tall, depending on moisture. It flowers during the hottest part of the summer when other plants are not showy, and is ever-blooming if there is no frost. It is a wonderful, small, drought-tolerant native plant that grows well in a variety of well-drained soils.


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