All About the Cotton Rose
An emblematic flower of the south for many reasons, here is a primer on the beloved cotton rose.
Who wouldn't want a flower like this? Although there are many forms, with either single or double flowers, the classic version looks like this. Showy blooms, three to five inches wide, appear in fall. They often open white and fade to a dark pink as they age. You'll often see all three colors on the same plant. Cool, yes?
Originating in China, the cotton rose isn't a rose, but a species of hibiscus (Hibiscus mutabilis). Sometimes called the Confederate rose because according to legend, it for that name from the flowers soaking up the blood spilled on battlefields during the civil war. Felder Rushing, co-author of Passalong Plants, an extremely popular and influential book on Southern gardening, recalls that ladies in Mobile, Alabama gave these flowers to Confederate soldiers returning home from the war.
Some folks call the plant "cotton rose," because its leaves resemble cotton foliage and its round flower buds remind them of cotton bolls. This makes sense, because cotton and cotton rose both belong to the mallow family, the Malvaceae. (See? I do know some real horticulture.)
Depending on where you live, the cotton rose can be either a shrub or a perennial. In places that rarely feel frost, it gets huge. I saw one in Johnnie Walker's garden on Edisto Island, South Carolina, that must have been 30 feet tall. Imagine something like that loaded with multi-colored flowers late into the year! And where it doesn't get too cold, it keeps on blooming into the fall.
Where Grumpy lives, in north-central Alabama, the cotton rose becomes a large, multi-trunked shrub about eight feet tall. It freezes to the ground in winter and then comes back up. I shot this one at Aldridge Botanical Gardens in Hoover, Alabama. This plant thrives in zones seven through nine, where it can grow tall and treelike.
Cotton rose likes full sun and moist, fertile soil, but it will tolerate less ideal conditions. It's a favorite Southern passalong plant, since it's so easy to pass along. You can sow seeds in spring, but the easiest way to propagate it is to simply root cuttings in water. So if someone you know has this plant, don't be shy about asking for a piece. It's what we do down here.
What happens if they turn you down? Simply go online and order a plant through the mail from the very nice folks at Woodlanders.