One of the big surprises that welcomes a new hibiscus enthusiast is the profusion of unexpected flower colors now available. The lavender, blue, and purple tones are particularly popular among hibiscus collectors, and browns, silvers, and grays are increasing in popularity. Strangely enough, all these colors are related in hibiscus. Browns, blues, lavenders, and grays all use the same family of pigments, all derive from the same mix of genes, and all suddenly appeared in the hibiscus world after 1950. Hibiscus have come in reds, pinks, whites, oranges, and yellows for as long as people have known and raised them. But where did these new colors suddenly come from in the 1950's? This is one of the most fascinating mysteries in the hibiscus world, and one we have researched extensively.
To briefly set the scene, let's take a quick look at how new hibiscus varieties are created in the first place. Do they just grow wild in nature where some enterprising person finds them and brings them to the attention of nurseries? Nope, not at all. That did happen way back in the 17th century with several of the original eight hibiscus native species that make up the genetic mix of the modern hibiscus hybrids. Kings of yesteryear sent explorers and botanists to all parts of the new world to find and collect new exotic plants and animals, among them six of our eight native hibiscus species. This did not yet include the Hawaiian hibiscus species that waited patiently for man to find them and recognize their compatibility with the African and Asian hibiscus species.
Since the discovery of the cross-compatible hibiscus species, new varieties have not been found growing wild in nature but rather have been the result of man's tinkering. An Irish botanist named Charles Telfair was one of the first to try cross-pollinating hibiscus species that seemed to be similar. His work was done in the early 1800's on the island of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa, and resulted in several successful new hybrids of hibiscus. Other botanists in Europe cross-pollinated native Chinese hibiscus to create their own new hybrids. This scattered hybridization went on around the world through the 1700's and 1800's, and the more popular new hybrids were exchanged among nurserymen around the world. Although we do not have precise records, it is highly likely that some of the world's most widespread and well known modern hibiscus (such as the single red known as 'Brilliant' in the US) were hybridized during this time.
That brings us up to the 20th Century - 1900 to be exact. This was when several Hawaiian hibiscus enthusiasts gathered together as many of the popular hibiscus hybrids as they could find and cross pollinated them with the native Hawaiian hibiscus species. For about 10 years there was a flurry of hybridizing activity of this kind in Hawaii. Fortunately, the results were fairly well documented by agricultural researchers in a small book titled "Ornamental Hibiscus in Hawaii", also known as the "1913 Bulletin #29," by E. V. Wilcox from the Hawaii Agricultural Experiment Station. There is one reference in this book that describes a "hint of lavender" appearing in one of the hybridized blooms. In my opinion this is unlikely to be the origin of blue colors in hibiscus since no further reports of lavender flowers occurred for almost 50 years. However, this early report is interesting and suggestive of the potential for hibiscus to combine the biochemicals of color to make lavender and blue flowers.
After this fruitful decade of hybridizing in Hawaii, the activity slowed again but never really stopped. By the 1950's the center for hybridizing hibiscus had shifted from Hawaii to Florida. It was then that a mysterious hibiscus with the name 'Hale Blue' entered the picture. No one knows for sure where it came from or what it was, since no pictures of it exist today. Some believed it to be either a genetic mutation or the offspring of a species known as Hibiscus denisonii. H. denisonii was first discovered on the island of Fiji, but has rarely been seen growing wild in nature. Its flowers are said to be a very light pink while Hale Blue was clearly a light lavender. Ross Gast, an important researcher and hibiscus hybridizer of the 20th Century, believed that 'Hale Blue' was actually a species in and of itself. He describes being directed to a plant of it that he found full of seed. He germinated the seed and grew some plants to maturity and declared that they were true to the original rather than hybrids. Gast sent 'Hale Blue' to Florida where hybridizer Jim Hendry used it in his hybridizing work. Whatever 'Hale Blue' was, it was used for a very short time by a very few hybridizers in the 1950's, and then it went extinct as far as we know. No one has reported growing or seeing 'Hale Blue' in over 40 years. Ross Gast kept meticulous records of each hibiscus cross he made, and these records are now in the custody of Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, California. We have examined these records carefully, and found that Gast listed 'Hale Blue' several times as the parent of his unnamed seedlings. Tragically, many of Gast's hibiscus hybrids died in an unusually hard freeze one winter in southern California during the 1960's, so they are not longer available for genetic testing.
Corroborating Gast's records are records from the American Hibiscus Society that name 'Hale Blue' as a parent of their nomenclature's earliest known blue and brown-flowered varieties: 'Myrna Loy,' 'Dolores Del Rio,' and 'Mahogany' by hybridizer James E. Hendry, as well as 'Lavender Sky' by hybridizer Bob H. Bowman. All other flowers in the blue, brown, and silver color ranges of the AHS nomenclature are offsprings of these first crosses that used 'Hale Blue' as a parent.
So there we have it. Before the 1950's and the discovery of 'Hale Blue,' there were no significant developments in the blue, brown, and silver color range. After the first hybrids using 'Hale Blue' as parent turned out to be lavenders and browns, hybridizers have made many, many crosses trying to improve on the plants and flowers that show the blue and brown colors.
There are some alternative theories that suggest that blues entered hibiscus from crosses with the lavender flowers of cold-hardy hibiscus species such as Hibiscus syriacus. We do not believe this to be the case and the recorded facts do not support such theories. Even so, the mystery surrounding 'Hale Blue' is something to consider. Maybe some day genetic analysis and other advanced techniques will reveal more of the truth behind this rather wonderful development that hibiscus flower color suddenly underwent half a century ago!