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On Gardening: Fiesta hibiscus – vacation packaged as a plant

An old hibiscus has The Garden Guy under a magical spell this year for a couple of reasons. Now when I say old, I'm not talking about a specific plant but a variety, Fiesta, that made its debut 53 years ago.

It is incredible that major suppliers are still producing Fiesta after all of the countless new varieties that have made their debut in the last half-century. When I look at it, I am flooded with happiness. It is like my trip to Bora Bora or Tahiti. This is a vacation packaged as a plant.

Fiesta seems to always be showing multiple colors. Consider the descriptor on the Monrovia web site, "A sensational tropical shrub with large, exotic color-changing blooms. The showy flowers have bright orange petals with crinkled edges and quickly change after opening, developing softer golden margins and a white center, with a blush red eye. "

We have Ross Gast to thank for this hibiscus; registering it back in 1966. I wish I could have known him. He was one of the founders of the American Hibiscus Society. He was an explorer and a scientist, a reporter and a writer, and so much more. If you knew him, write to me and tell me what he was like.

The Hibiscus rosa-sinensis that we affectionately call the Chinese hibiscus or the Hawaiian hibiscus, and is the national flower of Malaysia, has never been found in the wild. Ross Gast made 3 great journeys trying to piece the genetics together like a hibiscus puzzle.

Thankfully, he wrote letters that were assembled into a book called "Hibiscus Around the World" by Ross Gast. Immediately upon reading some of these, I felt like he was my friend. If you love hibiscus, you were his friend, even if you never met.

His writings remind me of Dr. David Fairchild, the great USDA Plant explorer, of whom Fairchild Tropical Gardens was named. He was also the founder of the property or site now called the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah where I retired as director.

In reading Fairchild's letters and Ross Gast letters one quickly realizes it was these letters, these journals, the recording of what they saw, found or whom they met that was so vital. If you are keeping a journal of your garden, flowers butterflies or birds seen, you too are creating a rare and priceless document.

Though many tout Gast's other hibiscus selections, the consumer has voted for Fiesta via their heart and pocketbook. The ringing of the cash registers tells you Fiesta is one of the most loved hibiscuses of all-time and still being abundantly produced many years after its plant patent expiration.

Now, 53 years later, my son is using them in mixed container designs that are riveting. They are like explosions of color and celebration. Fiesta hibiscus combined with Techno Heat Blue lobelia is an unsurpassed complementary color partnership.

In a garden bed, there is Fiesta hibiscus with Hawaiian Ti plants, Borneo Giant elephant ear, and Golden Delicious Pineapple sage for a feast of the senses. Sure, we can grow the topical hibiscus as a specimen, but the combination possibilities are almost unlimited.

Many times, I have written about a hibiscus that, to be honest, has been rather hard to find. If your local garden center doesn't have Fiesta, type it in on your favorite search engine and you'll soon be growing your own.

If you love hibiscus, Ross Gast was your friend and you can relish in the fact that he left us a prized jewel for the landscape, porch, patio or deck. Let the Fiesta begin.

(Norman Winter, horticulturist, garden speaker and author of, "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden." Follow him on Facebook @NormanWinterTheGardenGuy.)

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