Fragile flamboyance

2011-01-12 00:00

AS a visitor to Port Shepstone during a very wet holiday season, I could not help but notice that there is something special about a South Coast garden in the early morning summer rain. The smell of wet earth is fresh. Tiny droplets of water glisten on the tips of petals. Gumboots flecked with mud leave deep impressions in the soil and against luscious deep green boughs the bursting buds of the hibiscus flower seem to stand in the doorway to the day; not sure whether or not to trust in the possibility of sunlight following the misty morning.

The coastal area from Hibberdene down to Port Edward has, since the mid twentieth century when the first Hibiscus festival was held in 1948, been renowned for the Hibiscus tiliaceus which grows persistently along the shoreline and further inland. The plant has officially lent its name to this area since the year 2000, in the form of the Hibiscus Coast, used for tourism and municipal branding.

Graced with a pale yellow flower in the early morning, the coastal or sea hibiscus is a large and resilient shrub that is a highly competitive species that is resistant to competition from grasses and other plants once established.

However, the fragile flowers last a day or two at the most. In summer the buds open in the early morning warmth and sunshine. At first the petals are yellow to begin with, but as the day goes by the colour deepens to orange before turning ruby red by dusk. At the end of the day the base of the plant is marked by fallen blooms.

Even so the hibiscus masks the transient nature of its flowers by producing large numbers of buds that blossom almost constantly.

According to Susanne van Graan this transient nature is one of the things she enjoys most about growing hibiscus plants; she revels in the ability to pick fresh flowers every morning that can last the day out of water and knows that as long as she takes care of her plants there will be more to pick tomorrow.

Susanne and her husband Chris van Graan are hibiscus enthusiasts who own and run the Joymac Nursery and Hibiscus Paradise on the South Coast.

“As long as you pay them a bit of attention and look after them, both the indigenous and exotic plants are not hard to grow.” said Van Graan. “My top tip would be that gardeners must be very careful of borer, especially in the summer. We spray our plants every two weeks. Otherwise the borer can destroy the entire stem of the plant.”

Aside from the sunset colours of the medium-sized coastal hibiscus, smaller more delicate indigenous lilac and pink hibiscuses are found in the coastal area and the Joymac Nursery garden.

While the flowers of indigenous hibiscus are typical of the species, they are smaller and plainer than their exotic cousins found in Tahiti and Hawaii.

“The Hibiscus tiliaceus and the other indigenous plants are not as showy and elaborate as the exotic flowers which can come in so many different colours, shades and combinations” said Van Graan.

The Van Graans specialise in cross-pollinating exotic hibiscuses and grow them to sell to nurseries across the country and to individuals as collectors’ items. They have even sold the growing rights of some of their creations.

Even though the exotic flowers do not grow freely along the shoreline due to sensitivity to strong winds and salty air, the Van Graan’s garden is covered in leafy greens sprouting bright yellow, pink, orange, red and multicoloured frilly flowers.

The names of the flowers echo the elaborate nature of the exotic blossoms and with specimens that would answer to Bimbo, Snow Queen and Sprinkle Rain, if they could, it is no wonder that the participants in the South Coast Miss Hibiscus pageant often pick the flowers they use to decorate their hair from the gardens of Joymac Nursery.

Through cross-pollination Van Graan now has almost 200 different hibiscus plants that all produce unique flowers with different colour combinations and patterns.

“It takes a long time for the plants to flower and although I kind of have an idea, I never really know what kind of flower I’ll end up with,” said Van Graan.

As the sun sets after a hot and humid day, the hibiscus flowers do not look as lovely as they did 12 hours before. Now the edges of their petals turn black and brown, they lose their shape and eventually drop and get buried in the ground. But just as the sun will rise again tomorrow, so the Hibiscus tiliaceus will bloom once more — ever the promise of possibility.

• For all hibiscus wants and needs contact Susanne and Chris van Graan at 039 315 7289 or 083 274 3755, or visit the Joymac Nursery.

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