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Hibiscus acetosella Welw. ex Hiern 1896
pronounced: hy-BISS-kuss uk-KEE-tow-SELL-uh
(Malvaceae — the hibiscus family)
common name: False Rosella
Hibiscus is the Latin name for the marshmallow plant; acetosella is derived from the Latin acetum, vinegar and sella, a seat, and was the pre-Linnaean name for plants with mildly acidic leaves, like the common sorrel.
Hibiscus acetosella is a bold addition to the garden, with deep red-purple foliage that makes a great contrast with green-leafed plants. This tender perennial shrub (grown as an annual in colder climates) is native to tropical East Africa.
The palmate leaves are dissected to various degrees, depending on the cultivar, and in general resemble the leaves of a Japanese maple. The plants grow to a metre or so in height and about 70 cm wide in one season.
The smallish (about 6 cm) flowers are rather similar in colour to the foliage. They are borne singly in the leaf axils, so, because of both their colour and their location between the leaves, are not very conspicuous, and may be overlooked. They last only for a day. The plants bloom in response to short day length, so they flower very late in the growing season. In colder climates, plants are often killed by the frost before the flowers appear. The flowers each have both male and female organs, and are pollinated by insects.
The flowers may be used in salads. Young leaves may also be added to salads, or used in stir-fries – but take care, they are not sweet, but have a tart taste. They may also be used in soups and stews.
The plants are propagated by seed, and quickly attain a large size. The seeds have small prickly hairs that irritate some people. The plants are also often available as potted cuttings from nurseries and garden centres. They like full sun in well-drained soil. Since the plants are often not particularly full, it is probably best to plant several close together to create a bushier appearance, or to pinch the plants to encourage branching. If that makes them grow too much, they can be cut back at any time to shape the plants.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2009, 2012, Nelly Bay 2016
Page last updated 11th December 2016