When Carol Stinson gets together with friends for lunch or has her hair or nails done, she takes blooms from her tropical hibiscus bushes along to hand around. Someone invariably asks the question I did when I saw dry vases of the flowers on Carol’s kitchen counters: Don’t they need water?
Turns out they don’t. Think about the hula dancers you’ve seen with a tropical flower tucked behind their ears.
The blossoms last a day or so, and adding water to the vase doesn’t prolong their freshness, Carol says, so no need to complicate things. Just stick one in your hair and call it another throwback to the ’70s.
Carol and her husband, Virgil, have no shortage of hibiscus flowers to pass around. They’ve been growing the tropicals for 15 years or so.
The annuals that the rest of us plant usually are allowed to succumb to the first freeze, to be replenished anew the next spring. Not the Stinsons’. Their annuals are allowed to be perennial, as Plant Kingdom picks up 25 or so pots off their Crown Heights driveway as soon as the temperatures start falling south of 50 degrees in the autumn. The hibiscus and some other tropicals spend the winter snug in the greenhouse, flowering while the snow flies. Virgil Stinson, owner of Parklane Pharmacy, is known to visit them from time to time.
The pots are delivered back to the Stinsons once springtime temperatures are safely back in the 50s again. The summertime result is a scene not often seen in Wichita: a tropical paradise frothing with tree-size hibiscus, esperanza, giant copperleaf, blue plumbago and duranta. A need to bring out the lime and the coconut hangs in the air. Carol just brings a book onto the covered deck and reads amid the beauty.
The Stinsons have tried to grow hardy hibiscus in their yard, but it’s too shady, Carol says. The tropicals, depending on the variety, like a variety of sun exposures, some even seeming to prefer shade. The nice thing about having the hibiscus around from year to year, and keeping them in movable pots, is that the Stinsons can get to know the plants and what they like.
And no doubt about it, they like this summer. Not too hot – the tropics are not in the 100s, Virgil points out – but humid.
Ever since Virgil, one late summer years ago, brought home a sad-looking tropical hibiscus from the hardware store, he and Carol have thrown most of their garden eggs in the hibiscus basket, mesmerized by the colors, forms and growing habits of the tropicals. They buy some locally, but naturally have more to drool over from specialty retailers such as exotichibiscus.com, located in Florida.
“I like the double ones. My husband likes the single ones,” Carol says. Their yard has colors I’ve never seen before, and the names make me swoon: A hazy gray purple is called Raindrop. Carol’s favorite bright-yellow double is Full Moon. Hawaiian Salmon is a hanging pink hibiscus with swept-back petals that definitely is not Kansas nursery stock.
And some of the flat single tropicals carry layers of hues. I can see where the Stinsons get lost in the rainbows. Virgil likes the layered-on colors, for example, on Rum Runner. Mississippi horticulturist Norman Winter has described the magical flower this way:
“When it opens in the morning around 8:30, it has colors that defy logic for a hibiscus or any other flower I have ever known. It starts out with varying shades of magenta on the outside. As you move inward, you find lavenders, a starburst-like splash of iridescent blue and then a dark burgundy eye in the center.
“Those colors are awesome, but remember that was at 8:30. You may want to grab a cup of coffee and enjoy it because by noon, the colors will be different.
“Rum Runner’s outer petals change to oranges and reds with a hint of yellow. The lavender becomes a subtle purple, but there is still a hint of blue that is now a little lighter.” Later in the day, he says, the colors change to a pink-blushed yellow.
And the hibiscus flowers can be different colors depending on the temperature, Carol says. “The spring blossom is different from the summer, and the summer is different from the fall. The cool-weather blossoms are really beautiful. ... They just change all the time.”
Persimmon has a stunning apricot flower. Or so I’m told. It wasn’t blooming on the day I visited. That’s another thing: You never know what kind of show the plants will put on from day to day. The blossoms last only a day on the plants as well as off. Some days, it seems that all the shrubs are abloom, Carol says. I would have a hard time tearing myself away at such times. Other days can be quieter.
The beauty isn’t limited to the front of these flowers either. Kiss & Tell, for example, is a deep velvety red on its face, while on the back, almost always unseen, the petals are a series of swirls overlaid with speckled gold.
Backlit by a kitchen window, picked blooms glow on Carol’s countertop in shades that run from cantaloupe to lemon to watermelon.
The Stinsons spend $700 to have the plants overwintered. “That’s a great service,” Virgil says. When you think of the cost of replacing such plants, it sounds like a good deal. It also leads to more than your usual brief summer fling with a disposable plant.
When the temperature starts flirting with the 40s, and it’s time for the plants to get picked up, Carol says of Virgil, “I have to send him away because he doesn’t like to see me cut them back.” She takes the plants down by a half to two-thirds before sending them off to the greenhouse.
And because of the need to move the plants within the yard, as well as for the winter, they have to be kept to a certain size. Rather than putting them in bigger and bigger pots, making them harder and harder to move, the Stinsons do root pruning to keep the plants in the same pots. They do lose some plants along the way, some simply reaching the end of their lifespan.
The flowers do require care. Virgil fertilizes the hibiscus every two weeks with a mix of Fertilome Blooming & Rooting and Miracle-Gro Nursery Select. The Nursery Select form of Miracle-Gro is a must because it’s low in chlorides, something hibiscus don’t like, he says. And the plants have to be deadheaded. While the flowers naturally fall off, their stems remain quite a while if not removed, and the Stinsons keep their plants pretty tidy.
“They are funny. I really enjoy them,” Virgil says. “There’s just so much variety. Each plant has a personality, so to speak.”
I’m thinking about visiting them this winter myself.