The south is known for an old-fashioned shrub with many common names including Confederate rose, Cotton Rose and Cotton Rosemallow. Despite the common names this deciduous plant is not native to the south. Originally from Southeast China, Confederate Rose has been grown in Southern gardens for centuries. This plant was brought into English gardens in the 1600’s. It is recommended for USDA Hardiness Zones 8 to 10 and grows like a tree or shrub depending on its location.
The botanical name is Hibiscus mutabilis ‘Plena’ specifying it is not in the rose family but the hibiscus family. True to its botanical name mutabilis, its flowers mutate or change in color. The large 4 to 6 inch rose like flowers appear in the late summer and change from white to pink to deep rose as they age. The plant can have all three colored flowers at one time. ‘Plena’ makes reference to the double flowers. After flowering a round hairy capsule forms which dries and releases fuzzy seeds. The seed pod resembles a cotton boll hence the common name: Cotton Rose.
There are several old stories told about the plant’s common name. Two of the stories indicate that the name came from the fatal wounding of a soldier during the Civil War. The slain soldier lost blood as he lay dying by a Confederate rose and his blood is what changed the flower color from white to red.
Hibiscus mutabilis prefers to grow in rich, well-drained soil in full sun or in partial shade. It is a vigorous grower reaching 12 to 15 feet, but a multi-stemmed plant may only grow 8 feet tall. The large gray green leaves range from 5 to 7 inches with deep lobes. It is important to consider the planting location of a new plant because of the large size.
Confederate Rose is a perennial with the leaves dropping with frost. The new foliage that emerges in summer may come from the old stems, but in most areas, the stems die back to the ground and new growth comes from the base. Flower buds begin to appear in August or September as the gardener hopes they will open before frost. The plant has a coarse texture and a distinctive appeal.
Confederate rose is a popular passalong plant because they root easily. Cutting 12 to 18 inches long taken in the fall are frequently rooted in a bucket of water or damp sand during winter. Store the container in a cool, but not freezing area such as a carport or garage through the winter. Expect roots and leaves to develop in 8 weeks. Cuttings can also be taken in the spring with good results. There are several flower colors and forms including double pink, a red called Rubra, as well as single pinks and whites.
Confederate Rose is an eye-catching foliage plant even before bloom, with large, soft, gray green leaves. They are among the most spectacular and easily grown plants for use in a border. It’s drought tolerant, low maintenance and has spectacular flowers at a time of year when not many other woody ornamentals are full of color. Few garden plants provide so much enjoyment for so little care.