Another take on hardy hibiscus

Flemings Flower Fields, a noted grower of hibiscus and crape myrtle hybrids, took notice when we ran a news piece from USDA ARS on recent hibiscus breeding efforts

Today’s guest writer is Gretchen Zwetzig, owner of Flemings Flower Fields, a noted grower of hibiscus and crape myrtle hybrids. Gretchen took notice when we ran this news piece from USDA ARS about a hibiscus breeding program. She offers this recap of the stunning developments made by her company, which resulted from years of research and trials.

With over 60 years of hardy-hibiscus hybridizing, Fleming’s Flower Fields has more insight into and perspective on the hardy market than any other breeder in history. To attest to this, ‘Kopper King,’ Fleming’s first patented introduction in 2000, is arguably the most well-known hardy hibiscus around the world due to its 3-foot size, 12-inch white flowers with red streaks and its dark red “maple” leaves.

Hybridizing in a progressive and sustainable way requires knowledge of the full history of the species. Another hallmark of Fleming’s Flower Fields is making sure selection and testing are half of breeding many generations for a classic plant. This is most evident in the seven new hardy hibiscus called the Fleming Dwarf Hibiscus. These are the most compact, purple-leaved and novel-flowered hardies to date.

Ethics are becoming more important in business today and they have always been paramount at Fleming’s Flower Fields. Breeding is done with only non-patented plants, thus striving for hybrids with only new characteristics—not recycled ones. The motivation for all this work is the end gardener’s happiness, and not money.

When hibiscus breeding really started in the 1950s, the Hibiscus moscheutos that started it all were the ‘Mallow Marvels.’ They were seeds from fairly decent native selections having 8-inch flowers on 6-foot plants with green, ovate leaves. The Flemings began to further select from these while looking to other early breeders such as the colorful J. Herbert Alexander whose ‘Dahliatown Orchid’ was shared with Flemings Flower Fields and was the beginnings of ‘Kopper King’s’ trademark streaks to the flower edges.

The 60s brought one of the Fleming favorites to this day: the ‘Southern Belles,’ very sturdy 5-foot plants with green leaves and very nice 8- to 10- inch flowers with thick ruffled substance. Meantime, the Flemings were working like crafty little gnomes with otherworldly vision of compact hardy hibiscus with purple leaves, packing their pollen with heightened painting potential. They started crossing H. moscheutos with H. coccineus and other species not even considered in those early days.

The crossing of these natives from around the country would become the landscape worthy hardies of the future. Some of the names of their unpatented varieties at the time like ‘Big Red’ and ‘Pink Perfection’ reflected what kind of large refinements they were after. There were many more important but lesser-known hardy breeders through the years, but by the 1970s Robert Darby was leading the way with some of the first patented hybrids like ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady Baltimore’. The bright red ‘Lord’ and the luminescent ‘Lady’ were accented by the more palm-like green leaves of the coccineus and it made people take notice.

And by the 80s the Fleming brothers had spent almost 50 years behind the scenes creating many ‘Fleming Firsts’ …
1. The first hardy hibiscus not just under 6 feet, but 3 foot on average and compact.
2. The first hardy to -30 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. The first with both purple and yellow flowers, instead of the usual red, pink or white.
4. The first and only hardies with purple and red leaves.
5. The first with streaked and bi- and tri-colored corollas.
6. The first with new refined leaf shapes like “maple,” “hydrangea,” and “Palm.”
7. The first to bloom top to bottom and summer through fall all over the country.
8. The first tested for nearly 10 years each, so no one else needs to do it down the line.

Today, Fleming’s Flower Fields not only continues hybridizing but also sells their more than 30 patented plants in the U.S .and Europe with the help of 10 other licensed growers. Because of all of these breeders’ achievements, hardy hibiscus today are more popular and landscape worthy than ever.

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