Sandra Barr sat at her breakfast table one morning, looking out into her garden. She watched, mesmerized, as a bud on one of her many hybrid hibiscus plants began to unfurl.
“Right then and there, I decided to name it ‘Morning Call,’ ” she said. “That’s the beauty of hybridizing — you can name the plants anything you like.”
Barr and her husband, Wallace, are members of the Greater New Orleans Hibiscus Society, a group of devotees who meet monthly and stage shows and competitions. As Barr tells it, they are more like connoisseurs than simply admirers of hibiscus.
“There are many different species of hibiscus, such as Syriacus, the althea you see in everyone’s gardens here,” Barr said. “But we focus solely on Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, or tropical hibiscus. We call her the ‘Queen of the Tropics.’ ”
Tropical hibiscus are the brilliant pink, coral, orange and red blooming shrubs that are found in plant nurseries and garden centers. All are tender, Barr warns, and they suffer when temperatures dip below 32 degrees for any length of time. Although the exotic varieties that the Barrs and their colleagues collect and breed are more varied, delicate and unusual than their plant nursery cousins, all must be protected when even a light freeze is forecast.
“Plenty of gardeners plant their hibiscus in the ground, but they run the risk of losing them that way. They have to be protected,” Barr said. “That’s why I keep mine in pots and use a special cloth to cover them that keeps them about 8 to 10 degrees warmer than they would be otherwise.”
If hibiscus are in pots, of course, that means it’s possible to move them inside when frigid temperatures threaten. But what if you have hundreds of pots, like the Barrs have at their Taft Place home in Metairie?
“We have three greenhouses to put them in, but it’s still a lot of work,” Barr confessed.
Whether specimen plants or “garden variety” hibiscus (as Barr calls those in nurseries), they all like the same growing conditions.
“You want a good potting soil that isn’t too heavy — I use a professional mix — because you don’t want the soil packing in around the roots and smothering them. You want sun, but you don’t want them to get scorched, so a little filtered light can work well,” Barr explained. “Make sure they stay well watered, but they don’t want to be soggy. The days we’ve had recently with drenching rains have been hard on mine, and there are not as many blooms as I would normally have.”
Barr fertilizes her plants with a mix that is high in potassium relative to nitrogen and phosphorus but says it’s also possible to have success with a “20-20-20” mix (equal parts nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), as long as extra potassium is added to the mix.
Anyone who envies the glorious multicolored blossoms that Barr and her brethren cultivate, however, must make a commitment to hybridizing: harvesting pollen from one variety and using it to pollinate a different one.
A cherished offspring can then be reproduced grafting onto root stock or growing from tip cuttings. Hibiscus amateurs can use the same techniques to reproduce a favorite they picked up at a plant nursery.
“The Hibiscus Society has grafting events twice a year,” Barr said. “The other option is to take new growth about 3 or 4 inches long and dipping the base in a rooting hormone before planting it in a growing medium. Some people use all perlite; others use soil — there are a dozen different techniques.”
Although the Barrs have mastered hybridizing and grafting techniques, success with getting tip cuttings to root has proved elusive.
“Wally even made a trip up to Dupont Nursery in Plaquemine near Baton Rouge, because that’s what they use to reproduce plants and he wanted to try to figure out what we’re not doing right,” Barr said. “We’re going to keep trying until we get it. It isn’t like it’s rocket science, right?”