There are a very few plants as jaw-dropping as these blue Hibiscus! You’ll probably be used to seeing the usual pinks and reds, but these flowers are a very unexpected colour! This blue metallic sheen has come about thanks to one of the biggest breeding breakthroughs in the plant world!
The man behind this amazing creation, Dariusz P. Malinowski, tells his story here:
“When I look back upon my life, I think I would never had come with the idea of creating a blue-flowering winter-hardy hibiscus if I had not bought my own house in autumn of 2004. Imagine a yard surrounding the house with no single plant in it. A gardener dream, because I could make the garden the way I always wanted – a tropical island in the middle of north Texas. When you consider that we are dry and very hot (40 C) here most of the summer, and then sometimes bitter cold (-12 C and colder) during the months of November – February, you can understand it was not an easy task. But, it worked perfectly.
After I planted more than 40 winter-hardy palm trees, banana trees, and countless cacti, I was still missing the colour. So I went to Walmart one spring and bought a few cheap plants of red, pink, and white winter-hardy hibiscus, H. moscheutos, with no cultivar names. I did not really have any experience with growing this species, so when they bloomed next summer, I was very impressed with the flowers and started to search for more colours. Then I realized, pinks, reds, and whites were unfortunately all what was offered.
This was the moment, I decided to breed more colours so I could enjoy them. Blue was not on my mind then, however. I bought a few more hibiscus cultivars and species, and started to hybridize them. In 2006 and 2007, I had a few lines with somehow different flower colours than those available in retail.
A friend of mine, the late Mr. Steve Brown, the director of Texas Foundation Seed Service, saw me ordering pictures of the flowers on my computer at work one day. Steve was a gardener himself and probably the only one at my institution who saw a potential in my early hybrids. Steve and I, and another coworker and friend, Dr. Bill Pinchak, used all possible space in our private gardens to evaluate the hybrids in 2008-2009. I had to convince Steve Brown to influence our administration to make it a part of my research program, so we could evaluate not a hundred but thousands of hybrids.
While reading about hibiscus hybridization, I came across the work of the late Georgia Bost from Wheeler, TX. She collected and hybridized native hibiscus species. In one publication, she and other researchers analyzed flower pigments in her hibiscus collection and reported a hybrid that contained delphinidin, a blue pigment (although the hybrid had red flowers).
Georgia Bost also believed that intensive hybridization of winter-hardy hibiscus species would eventually result in the appearance of novel colours and colour combinations as it was achieved in tropical hibiscus, H. rosa-sinensis a century ago. That was one of my initial ideas on how to create a blue hibiscus….
In late 2000s, two cultivars appeared on the market with lavender (“Fantasia”) and plum (“Plum Crazy”) flower colours. I immediately saw a potential for a blue colour in them, although my colleagues did not share my enthusiasm at all. I decided to hybridize them with other hibiscus species, creating genetically complex, multiple hybrids among H. coccineus, H. moscheutos, H. dasycalyx, and H. militaris. At first, I got a couple of interesting flower colours, but the bluish appeared finally in the third generation. It was not a perfect plant – very tall and bushy (after H. coccineus) with purplish flowers that were bluish only in shade.
We released it as cultivar “Blue Angel” to protect our rights to the novel colour, but I wanted to improve the colour and plant shape.
Since 2011, I have created a number of blue shades, ranging from dark purple to almost silver (include pictures here). We were also able to change the growth habit, making the plants more compact and branched. This required a significant elimination of H. coccineus genes from the hybrids. We noticed that the blue colour is almost always correlated with a relatively small flower sizes (7-12 cm). It took us several years to increase flower size to about 25 cm on a slight expense in the intensity of the blue colour. I still dream about intense blue flowers with diameter of 30-cm, though… Maybe next season!
While creating and evaluating over 14,000 winter-hardy hibiscus hybrids in the past 8 years, we developed hybrids with salmon, maroon, magenta, silver, blue, purple, fuchsia, and a number of other colours that I cannot even name. Amazingly, we are seeing more and more often flower colour combinations that very much resemble some of the tropical hibiscus cultivars (include pictures here). Well, Georgia Bost was totally right!
Our next big dream is to create yellow and orange flowers in winter-hardy hibiscus. Both pigments are not present in this species. Interestingly though, kaempferol (a flavonoid) was found in one of the Georgia Bost’s hybrids, so the possibility might be there… In fact, I have already seen several hybrids in our evaluations with flower colours shifting from reds to orange. While inter-crossing these lines, we hope to achieve the orange flower colour one day.”
By Dariusz P. Malinowski, Plant Physiologist, Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center.