Fads, fashion styles and color preferences come and go, and the world of plants and gardening has never been immune from such sways in consumer preference. There is one elusive color that plant breeders and consumers chase with consistent and laser-like focus, regardless of the current trends. No gardener can seem to get enough of the color blue.
While there are a handful of true blue flowers out there from which any self-proclaimed blue enthusiast can get their fix, not all end up being suited to one’s particular climate. Those of you growing and gardening in cooler climates seem to be the beneficiaries of most true-blue choices, leaving us hot-climate southerners green with envy over your sapphire gentians, sky blue Meconopsis, electric hydrangeas and eye-popping lobelia. So, we might just be feeling a little jilted.
Luckily, hope is on the horizon for hot-tempered gardens and tropical plant lovers and it’s arriving in the unlikely form of hibiscus. Tropical hibiscus reliably perform as one of the most popular tropical flowering plants for both patios and landscape use. The large traffic-stopping blooms are hard for anyone to resist. Most consumers are used to the commonly available flower shades of reds, pinks, oranges and yellow; but hibiscus breeding has been going through a bit of a shake up over the last few years. The result being a dizzying array of unusual flower colors and ruffled flower shapes. And while hibiscus hybridizers have yet to produce what most would call a true blue flower, they are getting pretty darn close. We’ll call them “bluish.”
Customers can’t seem to get enough of these bluish beauties. According to Winn Soldani of Fancy Hibiscus, the latest consumer trends favor big, bold and unusual. “Lots of blues of any shade and form are in large demand right now. We cannot keep them in stock,” says Soldani.
Most blue tropical hibiscus varieties still lean more toward purple and lavender, with hints of pink. As breeders get closer to a true blue color, many hybrids are expressing shades of gray, creating a new and interesting smoky color palette for gardeners. ‘Ghostbuster’ is one such exotic hibiscus, bred by Charles Black of Hidden Valley Hibiscus (HVH).
Hidden Valley Hibiscus has some of the better blueish tropical hybrids to be found at the moment. ‘Denim Revolution’ is a close to light blue selection with big blooms that have good staying power. ‘Blue Opal’, also from HVH, open an opalescent blue and pink color, then shifts to a pearly gray-blue by the next day. Blooms have a sophisticated and soft look.
Favorite blues at Fancy Hibiscus includes ‘Mr. Ace,’ a hybrid that produces light blue to purple flowers with a red eye and ruffled petals. Their number one seller, which they call their “best blue,” is a gray-blue heavy blooming hybrid called ‘Tylene.’
In the effort to create new blue and uniquely colored hibiscus, some truly fascinating hybrids have come to market. There’s even a new variety that actually changes color from the morning to the afternoon. ‘Voodoo Queen’ produces large 8-inch blooms that open in the morning with violet centers and pink petals. Come afternoon, these same flowers change to a gray center with yellow petals. It’s quite the transformation. ‘Voodoo Queen’ is perfect for consumers who like to mix up color combinations in their garden.
The road to achieving a true blue tropical hibiscus has been a long one, but many hybridizers have joined chase and there is power in numbers. “Since blue is a primary color and there are no natural blue hibiscus, except with the Hibiscus syriacus species, it took a while for cross species breeding to get the blue genes where we needed them,” says Soldani. “Now even the backyard hobbyists are coming up with new blues.”
When asked how close he is to achieving a true blue tropical hibiscus, Soldani reminds us that that color is in the eye of the beholder. “What is a true blue?” he asks. “If the IPI (International Printer’s Index) has over 1,500 colors of white, can you imagine how many variations there are to the blue range?” Everyone not only sees colors differently, he notes, but also has their own personal likes and dislikes.
Best of both worlds
There is also some exciting breeding work going on with hardy hibiscus down at Texas A&M University. Dr. Dariusz Malinowski has generated some serious buzz with his research into blue blooms. According to Malinowski, the first goal of his hardy hibiscus breeding program is achieving new flower colors; followed by plant structure and growth habit, and then flower size. He notes gardeners tend to be more interested in large-flowering cultivars. Finally, he also works on tolerance to fungal diseases, such as cotton root rot or leaf diseases.
When it comes to consumer demand in the hardy hibiscus category, Malinowski confirms that it’s all about color. “Gardeners I work with are tired of the red, pink and white ‘old’ cultivars that have been commonly sold at mass merchants for years” he says. “Cultivars like ‘Plum Crazy’ (purple) or ‘Fantasia’ (lavender) were the first breakthroughs in the winter-hardy hibiscus assortment to deliver long sought new colors.”
Finding blue pigments in hardy hibiscus has come even harder than in tropicals. The pursuit, which has been ongoing for decades, has only recently begun to yield results. Malinowski started breeding hardy hibiscus as a private hobby in his own backyard. In 2010, he incorporated the hobby into his formal research program at the Vernon Texas AgriLife Research Center. His first success, ‘Blue Angel,’ was released in 2012. “‘Blue Angel’ was not totally perfect,” he admits. “The flower color was bluish in shade, but in full sunlight it still was shifting into the purple hues. Also, flower size was quite small, about 5 inches and the plant was quite tall.” So Malinowski kept at it, working with crossing four species of hardy hibiscus, including H. moscheutos, H. coccineus, H. militaris, and the Texas native, H. dasycalyx.
Since the release of ‘Blue Angel,’ Malinowski’s research has yielded about 10 new breeding lines that offer up much more pronounced blue colors and larger flower sizes. He’s managed to produce almost sky-blue flowers with stable color and even dramatically reduced plant size. Hardy hybrids with flowers that resemble those of tropical hibiscus are also in the works. Those plants could offer the best of both hibiscus worlds to gardeners. However, he does caution that because blue flower color is correlated with a relatively small flower size, it may be challenging to match the flower size of the more common red and pink hybrids.
Malinowski has given us a sneak peek at his blue flower breeding lines, none of which are yet available on the market, but are being evaluated by a few commercial grower partners. Selections will be brought to market in a few years, so now’s the time to plan and market ahead.
Malinowski also offers up this dose of reality: “I do not think breeding a hardy hibiscus with true blue color flowers is possible, because of the lack of true blue pigments in this species.” While he’s gotten pretty close, a hardy hibiscus with a flower color that rivals forget-me-nots or blue poppies may not be in his, or our, future. However, among the tropical hibiscus hybrids, he singles out ‘Blue Ballerina,’ by Hidden Valley Hibiscus, as his favorite because of their small plant size and relatively “true” blue color of flowers.
While hybridizers of tropical hibiscus will continue chasing the true blue dream, Malinowski will be taking a page from the tropical hibiscus handbook and working to create orange-flowered hardy hibiscus. In 2015, he created a new hybrid in his breeding line with a salmon/light coral flower color, a breakthrough for hardy hibiscus.