Everything You Need to Know About the Cotton Rose

Showy, colorful blooms that appear in fall.

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For many reasons, the beloved cotton rose is a symbolic flower for the south. Who wouldn't want a flower like this? Although there are many forms, single or double flowers, the classic version looks like showy blooms, three to five inches wide, appearing in fall. They often open white and fade to dark pink as they age. You'll often see all three colors on the same plant. Cool, yes?

Originating in China, the cotton rose technically isn't a rose but a species of hibiscus (Hibiscus mutabilis). Sometimes called the Confederate rose because, according to legend, the flowers soaked up the blood spilled on battlefields during the civil war. Felder Rushing, the co-author of Passalong Plants, an 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 the round flower buds remind them of cotton bolls. This naming 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.

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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. This cotton rose plant is from the Aldridge Botanical Gardens in Hoover, Alabama. This plant thrives in zones seven through nine, where it can grow tall and treelike.

How To Grow Cotton Rose

Sun and Soil

Cotton rose likes full sun and moist, fertile soil, but it will tolerate less ideal conditions. Try planting cotton roses in an area with at least six hours of direct sunlight. Areas with less sunlight will still produce blooms, but they might not flower as much as areas with full sun. When planting a cotton rose, choose neutral to slightly alkaline soil, but ensure it is rich in organic matter.

Water

Cotton rose plants should have proper drainage and thrive best in moist soil, but some can survive periods of drought. Maintain moist soil throughout the year—even in winter. As long as the soil does not completely dry out, especially the top two inches, a moderate amount of watering should be enough for this plant. Too much watering can cause disease, such as fungal growth.

Pruning and Care

After planting and watering during the growing season, the cotton rose does not require much maintenance. It thrives best in areas that don't get too cold or humid, but maintaining soil moisture is the most significant factor. These plants are also deer-resistant, so continued care is moderate. You will not need extensive pruning. An annual shearing of dead branches to promote new growth should be enough. If your cotton rose bush becomes unsightly, you can cut diseased or dead branches to the ground as fresh sprouts will take their place.

Propagating Plants

It's a favorite Southern pass-along plant since its growth makes it easy to do. You can sow seeds in spring, but the easiest way to propagate them is to place root cuttings in water. So if someone you know has this plant, don't hesitate to ask for a piece. It's what we do down here. What happens if they turn you down? Go online and order a plant through the mail from the charming folks at Woodlanders.

Common Diseases and Pests

Use mild insecticidal soap to prevent garden pests, like aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, and others. If you see fungal growth on the leaves because of over-watering or pests, remove the stems and any leaves turning yellow. The key to maintaining a healthy plant is proper watering—not too much or too little.

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